WASHINGTON -- All but 13 of the 289 Republicans in the House and Senate have signed a pledge vowing to oppose tax increases. On Thursday, the author of that pledge met with some of them to help them understand exactly what it is they signed.
In the process, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist sparked a fresh barrage of criticism from Democrats who accuse him and his pledge of being one of the major impediments to a bipartisan debt-cutting deal. Norquist and Republicans defended the pledge, denied that he is hurting his party because he has become a political target, and said that Washington's gridlock on the issue is not his fault.
The pledge has been "extremely helpful" to the Republican Party, Norquist told reporters after meeting privately with Republicans for about an hour, saying it has helped Republicans define a position that is popular with voters.
"They're not going to raise taxes to pay for Obama-sized government," Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, said of Republicans. "They're going to reduce Obama-sized government down to a size the American people will tolerate and are willing to pay for."
Thursday's session came at a time when some Republicans in Congress and elsewhere have been distancing themselves from Norquist's pledge, saying all options need to be available if the two parties are to concoct a debt-reduction agreement. It also comes during an election-year fight over whether to extend expiring tax cuts for the rich at the end of this year, as Republicans want and President Barack Obama and Democrats oppose, and whether to overhaul the entire tax code.
People in the meeting said around 15 House GOP lawmakers and about 100 aides attended. The session focused on how to respond to questions about the pledge and traced its history and explained its meaning, participants said, adding that no lawmakers gave the impression that they wanted to back away from it.
"There was no discussion in there today about amending anything, wiggling around or anything," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
With some in Congress beginning to concentrate on how the two parties might reach a budget agreement later this year, some Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have expressed a willingness to eliminate tax breaks and use some of the money that would produce to reduce deficits. That would violate a tenet of Norquist's pledge, which says any money raised that way must be used to lower tax rates.
Early this month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading national figure in the GOP, said he had never signed the pledge because he does not believe politicians should "outsource your principles and convictions to people."
Norquist told reporters that those who have signed the pledge have made a "commitment to the American people" and should "focus on the commitment they made."
The bearded Norquist, whose pledge has been around since 1986, has become a favorite whipping boy for Democrats though he is scarcely a household name. With even GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney having signed the pledge last year, Democrats see it as the symbol – and a cause – of the GOP's refusal to back a deficit-cutting deal last summer as Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tried reaching a compromise.
"They ought to be sitting down and working things out instead of holding court for him," said Rep. Sander Levin, top Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, as he wandered past the committee hearing room where the meeting was being held. "Norquist is here to hold feet to the fire when what we need are open minds."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Norquist on Thursday "the leader of the Republican Party." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she believes Norquist and congressional Republicans "are in touch every day" and said Norquist believes his pledge is more important than the oath lawmakers take to uphold the Constitution.
Norquist said Democratic criticism is "a matter of desperation" for them. He said Reid is putting some rank-and-file Democrats facing difficult re-election fights under excruciating political pressure because they may be forced to decide whether to oppose continuing tax cuts for the rich.
"He's destroying these peoples' political careers," Norquist said.