At times, it has seemed that Republican lawmakers eyeing a fiscal compromise with President Obama were moving closer to a public split with Grover Norquist, author of the famous no-new-taxes pledge that has defined conservative politics for decades.
Yet Norquist, whose influence in the conservative movement spans well beyond his well-known fixation on taxes, remains an unwavering force in the GOP debate — and even some of the most prominent lawmakers publicly flirting with a break from Norquist have assured him in private that they remain loyal soldiers in the anti-tax cause.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), for example, might have seemed a perfect illustration of the trend away from Norquist’s hard-line views when he said recently that policies backed by Norquist would lead to more debt. “I care too much about my country — I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist,” the senator told a Georgia TV station.
But five days later, on the phone with Norquist, Chambliss was sounding a conciliatory tone. As Norquist read aloud a transcript of Chambliss’s earlier remarks, item by item, Norquist recalled later, the senator repeatedly assured him on each one that he did not mean to imply they had major differences when it came to GOP principles on taxes. “He said he’d wished he hadn’t invoked my name and wished that he’d been clearer,” Norquist recalled from the Monday conversation.
Norquist said he came away from the conversation with this understanding of Chambliss’s position: “If he’d get a jillion dollars of spending cuts, he’d be willing to get rid of a deduction or two.”
Chambliss’s office said he was unavailable for an interview. A Chambliss aide later said that the purpose of the call was “most definitely not an apology.” In a written statement to The Washington Post, the senator said he and Norquist agree on “the vast majority of fiscal policy,” including that tax rates should not rise and spending should be reined in, though he added: “Grover disagrees with my longstanding position of using some revenue from closing special-interest loopholes to pay down our national debt, which is something I’ve never apologized for.”
For two decades, Norquist, 56, has been the most ardent enforcer of the Republican Party’s anti-tax theology. And Republicans have dutifully hewed close to that dogma. But humbled by last month’s election results, and facing a determined President Obama in deficit-reduction negotiations with tax rates set to rise Jan. 1 for all Americans as part of the “fiscal cliff,” several Republicans in recent days have expressed a willingness to compromise. Some have suggested striking a deal with Obama to raise tax rates on higher-earning Americans, as the president has pushed for, or rolling back tax credits and closing loopholes as a way to increase revenue — stances that could well violate the Norquist pledge.
The debate over the fiscal cliff presents a test for Norquist, whose influence is likely to rise or fall depending on how the fight plays out in the coming weeks — and what punishment, if any, Norquist can exact on GOP lawmakers he views as transgressors.
“There are going to be some people who took that pledge that vote for tax increases, and the way he handles that will either preserve his influence or diminish it,” said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican lobbyist and strategist. Still, for now, Black acknowledged, “he is as influential as ever.”
More evidence of Norquist’s enduring influence in the GOP came last week in the way conservatives closed ranks around him during an unusually packed session of the regular meeting of activists and GOP officials Norquist hosts every Wednesday at his Americans for Tax Reform offices near Metro Center.
One after the other, participants rose to congratulate Norquist for his multiple television and radio appearances defending the tax pledge, and to assure the crowd that Republican activists and lawmakers would stand firm against Obama’s call to raise taxes. Attendees included emissaries from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“The fact they’re attacking Grover really shows the impact of what he’s doing,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), incoming chairman of the conservative caucus in the House known as the Republican Study Committee, said as the room burst into applause and cheers. Scalise then declared himself “proud to be a pledge signer.”