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WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers looking for a way around the year-end budget impasse known as the "fiscal cliff" might get some help from some Minnesota Republicans who are signaling a crack in the long-standing GOP anti-tax pledge.
U.S. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, both potential Senate candidates in 2014, say they would consider raising new tax revenue by closing "special interest loopholes" in the tax code as part of a deficit deal that significantly cuts spending.
Also signing on to a tax loophole strategy is recently defeated Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack, whose single term ends after the current lame-duck session of Congress.
The new statements by the three mirror a broader movement among Republicans in Washington seeking a little negotiating room as pressure builds to avoid recessionary budget cuts and tax increases now scheduled to take effect after Dec. 31.
With the deadline looming in 35 days, President Obama started a four-day blitz to promote his plan to raise tax rates on income above $250,000.
Kline and Paulsen both oppose the Democrats' plan to raise tax rates on the wealthy, as do most Republicans in Congress. Both also have been longtime advocates of measures to streamline the tax code.
But any GOP reforms that end taxpayer deductions and credits without compensating tax cuts could be seen as an end run around the anti-tax pledge of influential GOP activist Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform.
Norquist's pledge has dominated budget talks in recent days as several prominent GOP figures have voiced misgivings about a long-standing vow that has been kept by the vast majority of Republicans in Congress.
All four Minnesota Republicans in Congress, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, have signed on to Norquist's pledge.
But Kline, who signed the pledge as a candidate for Congress, said he views it as a commitment to oppose higher tax rates, not reforms that could actually produce more revenue.
"Most people who signed that pledge would say that increasing revenues through lowering rates and simplifying the code is certainly consistent with what we thought we were signing on to," he said in an interview.
The text of the pledge for those in Congress states that the signer will: 1) Oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and 2) Oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.
Kline, a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner, said that Republicans have argued since at least the Reagan era for lowering tax rates to promote private sector spending and investment, and hence increase tax revenue. Critics, he added, are "splitting hairs" on the wording of the Norquist pledge, which Kline said is "open to interpretation."
Paulsen also distanced himself from a literal reading of the tax pledge, saying in a separate interview that "the details matter on what loopholes there would be or the tax revenue changes there would be."
Paulsen also noted that he signed the pledge as a member of the Minnesota Legislature, not as a member of Congress. The version signed by state legislators states simply that "I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."
Appearing during the weekend on WCCO-TV, Paulsen told Sunday morning anchor Esme Murphy, "I think that a lot of these pledges, they try to carry them on in perpetuity."
Bachmann has adopted a more literal reading of the pledge, emphasizing her opposition to new tax revenues in any form. "Giving Washington politicians more money to spend is a virtual guarantee that they will find a way to spend it without dealing with our debt crisis," she said in a statement.
But some marquee names in Republican politics are explicitly questioning the pledge, including GOP Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. In the House, Boehner has indicated that revenue increases are up for discussion, and Rep. Peter King, an influential New York Republican, has suggested the tax pledge may no longer reflect current political realities.
"A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress," King said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "If I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed the declaration of war against Japan. I'm not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed."
In past budget battles, including the 2011 debt crisis that led up to the current standoff, Republican leaders generally characterized the nation's growing $16 trillion debt load as a spending issue rather than a revenue problem, an argument that Bachmann made on Tuesday as well.
But there is growing evidence of a GOP shift in light of recent Democratic electoral gains. In addition, polls show many Americans would blame Republicans if the country goes over the fiscal cliff.
Lawmakers on both sides have struck a more conciliatory tone in recent weeks, saying the public has tired of the excessive partisanship of Washington. But it remains to be seen if the new thinking on the Norquist tax pledge can break the gridlock that has engulfed the current session of Congress.
All four Minnesota Republicans, like their GOP colleagues in both chambers of Congress, remain dead set against letting the Bush-era tax rates expire for the wealthy. Turning back that tax cut on the rich is a priority for Democrats.
"It's great that Reps. Paulsen and Kline are open to closing tax loopholes," said Kristin Sosanie of the Action, a pro-Obama campaign that is holding vigils at the Republican congressmen's district offices this weekend. "Unfortunately," she said, "the fact of the matter is that only closing loopholes will not raise enough revenue to pay down our debt."
Kline says the talks between Boehner and the White House will not focus on tax rates alone. The top GOP goal, he said, is to reform what they consider runaway entitlement spending. "We need to get to that," he said, "and this whole revenue thing is a good faith effort on the part of the speaker to the president and the Democrats."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.