By: Michael D. Shear
Grover Norquist on Monday found a new way of dismissing a handful of Republican lawmakers — including the House majority leader — who are now publicly wavering about the pledge they signed to never vote for a tax increase.
Mr. Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who urges every new lawmaker to sign his pledge, joked on CNN’s “Starting Point” that “we’ve got some people discussing impure thoughts on national television.” But he insisted that the vast majority of Republicans will not pay attention to them.
“They all said this two years ago, when we were arguing over the debt ceiling limit,” Mr. Norquist said in the interview. “We cut spending. We didn’t raise taxes. So other Republicans did not listen.”
Mr. Norquist’s position as the chief enforcer of the Republican Party’s “no tax increase” stance is under fire in Washington as President Obama pressures Republicans in Congress to reach a compromise that increases taxes on wealthy Americans.
Not wanting to be boxed in by Mr. Norquist’s pledge, some key lawmakers are saying publicly that they might be willing to raise taxes — in certain circumstances.
The latest to express some doubt about the pledge is Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader in the House and a staunch anti-tax crusader himself.
In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Monday, Mr. Cantor repeated his insistence that Republicans in the House “weren’t elected to raise taxes.” But he also played down the pledge as something that wouldn’t necessarily bind his caucus in the House.
“A lot has been said about this pledge and I will tell you when I go to the constituents that re-elected me, it is not about that pledge, it really is about trying to solve problems,” Mr. Cantor said.
That’s not quite as far some other lawmakers have been willing to go. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said flat-out that he’d break the pledge if Democrats agreed to cuts in entitlement programs. And Representative Peter King of New York said he doesn’t feel bound by the pledge any more than he’d insist on attacking Japan now because of a pledge made during World War II.
“The world has changed,” Mr. King said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program on Sunday.
A smiling Mr. Norquist dismissed the comments by Mr. King, Mr. Graham and others as not reflective of the broader Republican Party. And he said that lawmakers who break the tax pledge do so at the risk of angering the voters who sent them to Washington.
“You can either reform government so that it spends less and works better, or you can raise taxes to keep doing all the things we have been doing that haven’t worked very well,” Mr. Norquist said on CNN.
If Mr. Norquist seemed confident, the numbers are so far on his side. His Web site lists 258 members of the 113th Congress who have signed his pledge, including 219 in the House and 39 in the Senate.
So far, only about a half-dozen have expressed doubts about the pledge, and none have yet proved that they are willing to break the pledge with a vote to increase taxes. That test could come in the next six weeks.
The pressure to reach a compromise may work on them — and on others. But Republican lawmakers also face real risks that voters in their states will be angry. And many could face serious challenges from a conservative, Tea Party activist if they vote for a compromise that includes a tax increase.
Mr. Norquist offered his own warning to those members.
“If you want to go to your voters and say I promised you this, and I’m breaking my promise, you can have that conversation,” he said. “You’re not having an argument with me. You’ve made a commitment to your voters.”