WASHINGTON -- 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.
House Speaker John Boehner has called that notion unrealistic and has dismissed Norquist as "some random person."
Nevertheless, Norquist has maintained a certain level of clout for years.
Heading into the 2012 elections, 279 lawmakers had signed Norquist's' pledge, according to Americans for Tax Reform.
But some who have signed the pledge are having second thoughts. And when the new House is seated next year, no more than 212 of them consider themselves bound by the promise.
"I'm not obligated on the pledge," Corker told CBS News. "I was just elected. The only thing I'm honoring is the oath I take when I serve when I'm sworn in this January."
He's not alone in his stance on the pledge.
"When I go to the constituents that have re-elected me, it is not about that pledge," Cantor said on MSNBC. "It really is about trying to solve problems."
Chambliss, a veteran senator from Georgia, said he signed the pledge during an earlier campaign when the country's debt was nowhere near its current $16 trillion level.
"Times have changed significantly, and I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," Chambliss told his local television station. "If we do it (Norquist's) way, then we'll continue in debt."
"I'm frankly not concerned about the Norquist pledge," Chambliss added.
Raising taxes, whether by closing loopholes or raising tax rates, is seldom a vote-winning strategy.
President George H.W. Bush broke his campaign promise to not raise taxes; he ended up losing re-election in 1992.
Other Republicans, however, are now willing to put additional tax revenues on the table as a bargaining chip for a deal with Democrats to get changes in Social Security and Medicare and pare down federal deficits.
"I agree with Grover, we shouldn't raise rates. But I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can't cap deductions and buy down debt," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
"I will violate the pledge – long story short – for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform," he added.
Rep. Peter King of New York told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the pledge is good for a two-year term only.
"A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress," King said. "For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a support of declaration of war against Japan. I'm not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed, and the economic situation is different."
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, said the pledge is losing its clout.
"Fewer and fewer people are signing this, quote, pledge," he told an audience recently.
Also on HuffPost:
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)
Chambliss, a conservative Republican up for reelection in 2014, started the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/11/26/the-gops-read-my-lips-moment/" target="_hplink">media surge</a> of prominent GOP lawmakers breaking ranks with Norquist last week. He told a local news station on Nov. 21 that he thought the pledge itself was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/23/saxby-chambliss-grover-norquist_n_2177333.html" target="_hplink">outdated</a>. "I care too much about my country -- I care a lot more about it than I do about Grover Norquist," Chambliss said. "Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down. His plan says you continue to add to the debt, and I just have a fundamental disagreement about that and I'm willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves." As a member of the "Gang of Six" --lawmakers focused on a path towards deficit reduction -- Chambliss has proposed raising a significant amount of new revenues through tax reform.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.)
King championed Chambliss' take on the ATR no-tax-increases pledge when speaking about deficit reduction on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "I agree entirely with Saxby Chambliss," King <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/11/25/lindsey-graham-peter-king-break-with-grover-norquist/" target="_hplink">said</a>. "A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress. ... The world has changed, and the economic situation is different...For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I'm not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed, and the economic situation is different."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
The South Carolina senator took to the news shows on Sunday to push for a solution to the fiscal crisis, even if it requires that the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/12/lindsey-graham-grover-norquist-anti-tax-pledge_n_1590356.html" target="_hplink">GOP gives some ground on new revenues</a>. He told ABC's Jonathan Karl that he would be willing to break the pledge in order to ensure the fiscal solvency of the United States -- provided, of course, that Democrats would cede some serious structural reforms to entitlement programs. "When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece, and Republicans -- Republicans should put revenue on the table," Graham <a href="http://www.newsmax.com/Headline/mccain-graham-norquist-chambliss/2012/11/25/id/465282#ixzz2DLTNhN8O" target="_hplink">said</a>. "I want to buy down debt and cut rates to create jobs, but I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform." <em>Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a misspelling of Graham's first name.</em>
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
Corker became the third GOP senator to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/bob-corker-grover-norquist-pledge_n_2190985.html" target="_hplink">publicly disavow the pledge</a> promulgated by Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform in the last week. Speaking to CBS' Charlie Rose on Monday, the Tennessee Republican said that he was bound to serve his constituents first and foremost. "I’m not obligated on the pledge," he said. "I made Tennesseans aware, I was just elected, the only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve, when I’m sworn in this January."
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)
Although Cantor has not come out and explicitly stated that he would violate the pledge -- in the manner of Graham -- he has said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/eric-cantor-grover-norquist-pledge_n_2191375.html" target="_hplink">he is not concerned</a> with the pledge and wants to do what is best for his constituents. "When I go to the constituents that have reelected me, it is not about that pledge," Cantor said on MSNBC on Monday. "It really is about trying to solve problems." As a part of a supposed grand bargain, Cantor says that Republicans are willing to put some new revenues on the table, provided that they are raised from closing loopholes rather than from increasing the marginal rates. Under Norquist's pledge, neither option would be permissible.
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.)
Rigell broke with Norquist and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/grover-norquist-tom-coburn_n_1676841.html" target="_hplink">revoked his signing</a> of the pledge in May on the grounds that it restricts any meaningful attempt at tax reform. "Averting bankruptcy requires us to grasp the severity of our fiscal condition and summon the courage to speak boldly about the difficult steps needed to increase revenues and sharply decrease spending," he <a href="http://www.democraticwhip.gov/content/washington-post-gop-shifting-taxes-norquist-pledge-losing-support" target="_hplink">wrote</a> in a two-page letter explaining his reversal to his constituents. He wasn't advocating for tax hikes to further increase government spending, but any substantive overhaul of the tax code could only be undertaken if everything was on the table, he said. At the time, Norquist questioned the salience of Rigell's position, saying that the sort of tax increases he was looking for would be as unlikely as <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76470_Page2.html#ixzz2DM2L4989" target="_hplink">catching a unicorn</a>. “[I've] been in touch with the Republican Party in [Rigell’s] district, and they aren’t excited about it. This is not going to be a continuing problem,” Norquist told Politico in May.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)
Coburn has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/grover-norquist-tom-coburn_n_1676841.html" target="_hplink">publicly criticized</a> the idea of a no-new-taxes pledge before. In July, he authored <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/16/opinion/a-greater-american-pledge.html?_r=2&ref=todayspaper" target="_hplink">an editorial</a> for The New York Times in which he decried the hard-line approach taken by Norquist as counterproductive to substantive deficit reduction. "In a debt crisis, higher interest rates and the debasement of our currency would be additional tax hikes," Coburn wrote. "In that sense, no one is doing more to violate the spirit of the pledge than Mr. Norquist himself, who is asking Republicans to reject the very type of agreement that could prevent future tax increases." Coburn previously disagreed with Norquist's characterization of his bill to eliminate the ethanol tax credit as a "<a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/56990.html" target="_hplink">tax increase</a>."
Senator-Elect Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
When running for his Arizona seat, Flake claimed that he had not signed the pledge when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/10/jeff-flake-promises-tax-pledge_n_1956509.html" target="_hplink">in fact he had</a>. But the Republican did publicly distance himself from Norquist, saying in October that "the only pledge I'd sign is a pledge to sign no more pledges." "I believe in limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility," Flake said during a debate against his Democratic and Libertarian opponents. "I don't want higher taxes. But no more pledges."
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.)
Ribble, a freshman lawmaker from Wisconsin, decided that <a href="http://www.postcrescent.com/article/20111116/APC0602/111160402/Editorial-Read-Rep-Reid-Ribble-s-lips-No-new-pledges" target="_hplink">he wouldn't be signing any more pledges</a>, including a renewal of Norquist's anti-tax measure. In order to achieve deficit reduction, he wants to <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76470.html" target="_hplink">close corporate loopholes</a> and explore other options around tax reform. "Tax rates don't correlate much to what actual revenue is, but if we would remove some of the subsidies and tax giveaways, we would have the money to reduce rates and spur economic growth which would increase revenue," he told CNN.
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.)
Andrews, one of two House Democrats to sign the anti-tax pledge, said that he thought the anti-tax promise only applied to the term in which he signed it rather than extending throughout his legislative career. "I honored that pledge -- <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">I never renewed it</a>," Andrews told The Hill back in 2011. "I never considered it to be like my marriage vows...I'm married to Camille Andrews, not Grover Norquist. I promised her to be faithful until death do us part, and I mean it. I did not promise him to oppose tax increases until death do us part."
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)
Terry also believed that the anti-tax pledge only applied to the two-year term in which he signed it. He and Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) both indicated to The Hill in 2011 that they had signed the pledge <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">20 years ago</a> but had not agreed to uphold the pledge while serving in the present Congress.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.)
Fortenberry told his constituents in August that he found Norquist's anti-tax pledge to be "<a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">too constraining</a>" and did not want to be associated with it. He first broke ranks in 2011 and then <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/jeff-fortenberry-one-house-republican-whos-dared-to-defy-grover-norquist/2012/05/17/gIQA5Q0wVU_blog.html" target="_hplink">renewed his position</a> again in May 2012 when speaking to The American Conservative. "Simply looking at the status quo and suggesting that the tax code is sacrosanct and can never change, and that decisions made in the ’80s and ’90s can never change, is absurd," he said. "The tax code is weighted toward the ultra-wealthy and ultra-wealthy corporations, and has created an offshore aristocracy of people who can afford to hire an army of accountants and lawyers." "We need a simpler, fairer tax code. Removing special-interest loopholes could potentially increase revenues and allow for lower rates," he added.
Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio)
LaTourette, who announced in July that he will retire at the end of the year, hasn't signed the pledge since 1994. He was under the impression, like several other GOP lawmakers, that the anti-tax promise had a limited applicability and had to be renewed. "My driver’s license expires," LaTourette <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">told</a> The Hill. "The milk in my refrigerator expires. My gym membership expires, and I find the website to be a little deceptive." LaTourette and Sen. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) <a href="http://cooper.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=586&Itemid=73" target="_hplink">introduced</a> a version of the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan in March. Although it engendered very little public support at the time -- and drew fire from Norquist -- LaTourette told HuffPost that many lawmakers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/02/steve-latourette-grover-norquist_n_1733712.html" target="_hplink">privately pledged to get behind the measure</a> after the November elections.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.)
DesJarlais <a href="http://www.tennessean.com/article/20121127/NEWS02/311260055/Sen.-Corker-backs-off-no-tax-hike-pledge?nclick_check=1" target="_hplink">walked back his commitment</a> when The Tennessean asked about his signature on the anti-tax pledge Monday. "The only pledge that matters is the one I made to my constituents to always represent their interests in Congress," the Tennessee congressman said in a statement. "I will judge any legislation put forth to avoid the fiscal cliff based solely upon the wishes and needs of the people of Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District." In the past, DesJarlais has also appeared to waffle on conservative positions he has taken on both preventing abortion and supporting family values. HuffPost's Michael McAuliff <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/10/scott-desjarlais-abortion-pro-life_n_1953136.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> in October that he had an affair with one of his patients and appeared to push her to get an abortion on a recorded phone call.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)
Alexander first broke with the pledge last year, but he <a href="http://www.tennessean.com/article/20121127/NEWS02/311260055/Sen.-Corker-backs-off-no-tax-hike-pledge?nclick_check=1" target="_hplink">reaffirmed his sentiments</a> to The Tennessean yesterday. When speaking to Roll Call magazine last July, the senior GOP senator said that he wanted to get rid of some <a href="http://www.rollcall.com/issues/56_139/grover-norquist-ethanol-tax-206489-1.html" target="_hplink">unwarranted tax breaks</a> -- something Norquist's pledge would not allow. “My only pledge is to the United States flag and to the United States Constitution, and I’ve forsworn all others,” Alexander <a href="http://www.tennessean.com/article/20121127/NEWS02/311260055/Sen.-Corker-backs-off-no-tax-hike-pledge?nclick_check=1" target="_hplink">told</a> Roll Call at the time.