updated 2/18/2005 6:09:26 PM ET 2005-02-18T23:09:26

Two words could cast a pall over any gathering of conservatives celebrating President Bush’s second term and Republican gains in the House and the Senate: tax increase.

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President Bush this week acknowledged the possibility of making high-income workers pay more Social Security taxes as part of his plan for private Social Security accounts, and that notion has conservatives alarmed.

The last Republican who broke a “no new taxes” pledge was booted out after one term, they reminded. His name: George H.W. Bush.

“People are quite angry about Bush opening a Pandora’s box of tax increases,” said Stephen Moore, an anti-tax activist with the Free Enterprise Fund. “It’s almost like ‘read my lips’ all over again.”

“My antennae go up as soon as I hear the ‘t’ word,” he said.

Big Bush backers bristle
At the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, conservatives cheered by their election gains in November rejected any talk of a tax increase, even for Bush’s far-reaching proposal to allow younger workers to establish private Social Security accounts.

Their concerns reflected a similar sentiment on Capitol Hill.

“When Dad did it, it was bad politics and bad policy,” said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist. “To do it again would be bad politics, bad policy and a lousy memory.”

The first President Bush made the campaign pledge, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” but he later agreed to a compromise tax increase to deal with budget problems. That move undercut his conservative base and helped pave the way for a challenge by conservative Pat Buchanan in the 1992 Republican primaries. Bush was later defeated in the general election by Democrat Bill Clinton.

“I don’t fault him, because at this stage the president is in the process of trying to bring everybody together,” David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said of the current president. “I don’t have any reason to believe this would happen.”

Willing to lose private accounts
Tax opponents generally agreed that any attempt to push a tax increase would kill efforts to create private accounts in Social Security.

“If there’s any tax increase included, it’s dead,” Republican activist Morton Blackwell said of the Social Security plan.

Scott Hodge, president of the Tax Foundation, said some conservatives saw Bush’s gesture on taxes as a “signal that the White House may be too quick to compromise.”

While conservatives have been willing to give the president flexibility on some issues, raising taxes is not one of them. “This would be seen as heresy. This goes to the core beliefs of conservatives,” Hodge said.

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