WASHINGTON (AP) — For decades, conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist vowed to drive Republicans out of office if they didn't pledge to oppose tax increases. Many lawmakers signed on.
But now, several senior Republicans are breaking ranks, willing to consider raising more money through taxes as part of a deal with Democrats to avoid a catastrophic budget meltdown.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker says the only pledge he will keep is his oath of office. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says no one in his home state of Virginia is talking about what leaders in Washington refer to simply as "The Pledge," a Norquist invention that dates to 1986. Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss says he cares more about his country than sticking to Norquist's pledge.
It's quite an about-face for senior members of a party that long has stood firmly against almost any notion of tax increases. And while GOP leaders insist they still don't want to see taxes go up, the reality of a nation in a debt crisis is forcing some to moderate their opposition to any movement on how much Americans pay to fund their government. Republican legislators and Democratic President Barack Obama's White House are haggling vigorously as they look for ways to reach agreement on detailed tax adjustments and spending cuts before automatic, blunt-force changes occur at the new year.
"Oh, I signed it," Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said on Fox News about Norquist's pledge, adding he still supports its goals. "But we've got to deal with the crisis we face. We've got to deal with the political reality of the president's victory."
The naysaying about the pledge is raising the question of whether Norquist — a little-known Republican outside Washington — is losing his position of power within the GOP. It's a notion he calls ridiculous.
"Nobody's turning on me," Norquist said Monday.
But he indicated he would turn on lawmakers who defy him, starting with Corker, who published an opinion piece Monday in The Washington Post outlining an alternative to the budget breakdown that includes more revenue.
"Corker was elected to the Senate because he took the pledge," Norquist said on Fox News. "He would not be a senator today if he hadn't made that commitment. If he breaks it, he's going to have to have a conversation with the people of Tennessee about his keeping his word. And the same thing with other people who are elected because they made that written commitment to the people of their state."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the shifting away from Norquist signaled an opportunity for Republicans to work with President Obama.
"They represent what we hope is a difference in tone and approach to these problems and a recognition that a balanced approach to deficit reduction is the right approach," Carney said.
Norquist, the head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, opposes tax increases of any kind, whether eliminating deductions, a position some GOP lawmakers say they're open to, or raising rates. He has insisted on hardline positions from lawmakers and, for years, has held outsized sway in the party for someone who does not hold public office. His pledge doesn't allow any change to the tax code that adds a dollar to revenues.
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