Robert Novak

But Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, DeMint's partner in fighting earmarks, did not buy this solution. Coburn denied that the health care alternative constitutes a tax increase. Furthermore, he wants to save the repeal of AMT, the favorite Democratic tax cut, for later when Republicans might get something in return. Coburn joined with Burr and other GOP senators, Mel Martinez of Florida (the Republican Party's general chairman) and freshman Bob Corker of Tennessee, in a new proposal.

The Burr amendment would balance the tax increases with a refundable tax credit for lower bracket taxpayers -- that is, a cash payment. That meets long-standing concerns at the conservative Heritage Foundation about how low-income Americans could take advantage of individual health insurance accounts. But refundable credits -- such as the Earned Income Tax Credit -- always have been scored as spending increases, not tax cuts. Thus, the Burr amendment is budget neutral, but not tax neutral.

That triggered last Wednesday's warning by Norquist about breaking the tax pledge. "Budget neutral isn't good enough if all it does is balance Washington's budget at the expense of the family budget," the ATR lectured the senators. The admonition infuriated Tom Coburn as well as Heritage analysts. But the 238 pledge signers (all but five of them Republicans) do not want to get on Grover Norquist's blacklist.

While Burr says he never intended to bring his amendment to a vote, not doing so Thursday saved Republican senators from embarrassment. But the intraparty dispute suggests the Republican Party has wandered on tax policy. Burr told me his balancing of tax increases with refundable tax credits is "a matter of tax equity," adding that he worries about "this unequal tax system." If "equity" were the overriding concern, there would have been no Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts, and Democrats would have won economic debates of the last three decades.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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