For two decades, Republican legislators have bowed at the altar of Grover Norquist. But the anti-tax lobbyist's grip on the GOP is suddenly being tested by would-be heretics.
With President Barack Obama and leaders in Congress facing a year-end deadline for critical budget talks, high-profile Republicans are openly questioning Mr. Norquist and his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which binds legislators who sign it to never raise taxes.
All but a handful of Republicans in Congress have signed the pledge, most of them years and even decades ago. But following Mr. Obama's re-election victory, tied in part to his promise to raise taxes on the rich, some in the GOP are reconsidering their fealty to Mr. Norquist – such a universal fixture on the Washington scene that he is known simply as Grover.
"I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss said recently, echoing his Senate colleagues Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Bob Corker. "If we do it [Mr. Norquist's way] then we'll continue in debt."
The sudden willingness of big-name Republicans to question the pledge is a paradigm shift that is testing Mr. Norquist's power-broker status in the GOP. And it could be the key to a breakthrough that averts the so-called fiscal cliff threatening the U.S. economy on Jan. 1, when more than $600-billion (U.S.) in automatic spending cuts and tax increases kick in unless a long-term budget deal is reached before then.
Mr. Norquist's pledge has been a useful branding tool, allowing Republicans to differentiate themselves from "tax-and-spend" Democrats. But it is increasingly seen as an ideological straightjacket that has alienated centrist voters and caused the U.S. debt to spiral to more than $16-trillion.
"This guy is a zealot, who having forgotten his purposes, redoubles his efforts," former Wyoming GOP senator Alan Simpson, who co-chaired Mr. Obama's 2010 deficit reduction panel, said this week of Mr. Norquist.
Mr. Norquist dismisses the musings of Mr. Chambliss and the others as nothing more than "impure thoughts." None of the defiant Republicans has voted for a tax hike yet. And it could be they are merely posturing, aiming to appear conciliatory but knowing Democrats will not agree to the big spending cuts they set as a condition for agreeing to tax increases.
What's more, any Republicans who did violate the "pledge" would almost certainly face a challenge from a Norquist-backed candidate in their next primary, a sobering disincentive for Mr. Graham and Mr. Chambliss, who are both up for re-election in 2014.
Yet with Mitt Romney's defeat, in part because he was seen as favouring the rich, the GOP's anti-tax orthodoxy is being reappraised.
Republicans' long-standing opposition to any tax increase raises questions about their own commitment to fiscal conservatism. And polls show a majority of Americans support a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the deficit.
The issue has come to a head with the year-end deadline. The massive one-time tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect next year would likely drive the U.S. economy into a recession.
The White House and congressional leaders are negotiating a long-term budget deal that averts the cliff while phasing in a plan to cut the deficit about by $4-billion over a decade. Observers suggest a deal likely hinges on the willingness of Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to agree to "revenue increases" in exchange for cuts to social programs. But on Thursday, Mr. Boehner said "no substantive progress" has been made toward a deal since the Speaker and other congressional leaders held their only face-to-face meeting two weeks ago. "Democrats have yet to get serious about real spending cuts," Mr. Boehner said.
Mr. Boehner's statement came after Mr. Obama reportedly laid out his demands in a formal offer presented to the Speaker by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on Thursday morning. The President is seeking $1.6-trillion in new tax revenues over 10 years and the extension of payroll tax cuts and benefits for the long-term unemployed that are set to expire on Dec. 31. In exchange, Mr. Obama is offering $400-million in spending cuts in Medicare and other programs. Mr. Norquist, who has a penchant for colourful hyperbole, warns Republicans that Democrats want to get GOP "fingerprints on the murder weapon" (his term for tax increases) so as to deprive them of their anti-tax branding in the future. He recently called taxes "thoroughly icky," conceding jokingly that the U.S. government needs funding only for "a military strong enough to keep the Canadians on their side of the border."
Considered unbearably smug by his critics, Mr. Norquist has few outright fans. After New York Congressman Peter King said he was no longer bound by the pledge, which he signed in 1994, Mr. Norquist asked whether he felt that way about his wedding vows.
"He's never met my wife. And he better hope he doesn't," Mr. King fired back this week. "She'll knock his head off."
While the new willingness of some Republicans to consider tax increases has led pundits to suggest that Mr. Norquist's influence is finally on the wane, the 56-year-old lobbyist has shaped the budget debate perhaps more than anyone in Washington.
"Is Grover over? No," said John Patty, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "If Grover were over, you'd be seeing some hard-core discussion of even higher taxes" than the 39.6 per cent top rate that Mr. Obama is seeking.
Without a deal, tax cuts passed under George W. Bush will expire on Dec. 31. Mr. Obama wants to extend the lower tax rates for everyone except households earning more than $250,000 annually and individuals making upwards of $200,000. Under the Obama plan, the top marginal tax rate would rise to 39.6 per cent from 35 per cent.
Mr. Boehner so far opposes any increase in tax rates, but has expressed openness toward a reform of the tax code that raises the amount of revenue the government takes in by eliminating some tax deductions. That would technically violate the Norquist pledge.
Barack Obama: Fresh off his re-election victory, and claiming a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, Mr. Obama is in a stronger negotiating position now than when he sought Republican approval to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in mid-2011. He has vowed to veto any bill that extends Bush-era tax cuts for the rich and said he doubts the government can raise enough new revenue simply by eliminating some deductions. The Democratic base intends to hold him to his promise to raise rates on the wealthy and protect Medicare from Republican cuts. But without another election to worry about, he may be willing to spurn members of his party in order to secure a historic budget deal.
Tim Geithner:Mr. Obama has tapped his Treasury Secretary to be his chief negotiator in the budget talks, rather than White House chief of staff Jacob Lew. Mr. Lew led the bitter debt-ceiling talks in 2011 and bad blood between him and Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner could impede progress now. Liberal Democrats worry that Mr. Geithner's pro-business philosophy may lead him to give in to Republican demands for deep cuts in social spending in exchange for higher tax rates on the wealthy.
John Boehner:The GOP House Speaker is still smarting from his failed "grand bargain" talks with Mr. Obama in 2011, when they came close to reaching a $4-billion deficit-reduction deal. With voters putting most of the blame for gridlock on Congress, Mr. Boehner is keen to do a deal this time – even one that leads to higher taxes on the wealthy. But he is first demanding major cuts to entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Mr. Obama's signature health-care law.
Harry Reid:The Democratic Senate Majority Leader is resisting major changes to Medicare and Social Security. Should he relent, any deal that involved big cuts to those programs would be rejected by the Senate's most liberal members, forcing Mr. Reid to rely on Republican votes to pass it. It is far from certain the White House or Mr. Boehner can make any deal attractive enough for Mr. Reid to turn his back on his left flank.
THE GOP heretics: Some high-profile Republicans suggest they would be willing to raise taxes, as long as Democrats agree to cuts in Medicare and other entitlement programs. Among them are Mr. Graham and Mr. Chambliss, both up for re-election in 2014and could face a primary challenge from Norquist-backed candidates if they violate his pledge.