A top Republican senator is casting aside an anti-tax pledge he signed, saying that solving the country’s looming fiscal crisis is more important than honoring the decades-old pact.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., broke ranks with other conservatives Wednesday when he made the remarks to a local television station. Chambliss is a member of the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators tasked with finding a solution to the country's fiscal woes.
"I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," he told WMAZ-TV. "If we do it his way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."
Congress and the White House face a year-end deadline to reach a deal that staves off an avalanche of tax increases and deep cuts in government programs – commonly referred to now as the “fiscal cliff.”
Chambliss signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, authored by conservative activist Grover Norquist and embraced by the majority of congressional Republican lawmakers. In it, Norquist, an anti-tax lobbyist and head of Americans for Tax Reform, does not allow for tax rates to rise.
Those who sign the pledge "solemnly bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases," according to the group’s website, which states that 39 senators, including Chambliss, and 219 House members support it.
Chambliss acknowledged that distancing himself from the pledge might hurt him in his bid for re-election in 2014, but said he's not concerned about it.
"I don't worry about that because I care too much about my country,” he said. “I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist."
"I'm willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves,” Chambliss added.
A senior aide to Chambliss confirmed the accuracy of his remarks to Fox News.
Obama campaigned on a pledge to end the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for households making more than $250,000 a year. Republican leaders say the lower rates from 2001 and 2003 should remain in place for everyone, including the rich.
Both sides have dug in so deeply that it will be politically painful to back down. Republicans say tax increases on the rich would inhibit job growth. Democrats dispute that, and say it's only fair for the wealthiest to provide more revenue in this era of historically low tax burdens and a growing income disparity between the rich and the poor.
The federal budget cuts would begin Jan. 2, part of a deal reached by Congress after failing to agree on a more measured solution to reducing the federal deficit. The cuts would total roughly $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, including $65 billion just in 2013.
Most Republican lawmakers have signed a pledge not to allow tax rates to rise, even if they are scheduled to do so by law, as are the Bush-era cuts. Some Democrats say it may be necessary to let the Dec. 31 deadline expire and have everyone's tax rates revert to the higher, pre-Bush levels. Then, the argument goes, Republicans could vote to bring the rates back down for most Americans, but not the richest, without breaking their pledge.
The tax rate issue is especially thorny because it doesn't lend itself to Washington's favorite tactics of postponing hard decisions. Lawmakers routinely resort to "continuing resolutions" to end budget impasses by keeping spending levels unchanged for yet another year. Politically, no one wins or loses.
Obama's campaign promise to raise tax rates on the wealthy precludes that. Either rates on the rich will rise and Republicans will absorb defeat on a huge priority, or the rates will remain unchanged, a political defeat for Obama.
Fox News' Mike Emanuel and the Associated Press contributed to this report.