In wake of Abramoff scandal, Norquist is stronger than ever

Earlier this year, the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist spoke before a crowded room of House Republicans, imploring lawmakers to stand up to President Obama’s rhetoric on taxes.

The idea of the Americans for Tax Reform president — who was, after all, a White House favorite for much of George W. Bush’s presidency — addressing a receptive audience of Republicans might not be far from a total surprise.

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But Norquist’s drawing power among Republicans could be higher than ever before, coming at a time when the conservative grassroots Tea Party movement is also trying to hold Congress’s feet to the fire.

Norquist’s sway also shows that the activist has successfully weathered the storm of scandal — his ties to Jack Abramoff, the top Republican lobbyist sent to prison after an extensive corruption investigation — that has brought down so many others in Washington.

After all, many observers feel Norquist has the upper hand in his high-profile spat with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative deficit hawk who is challenging Norquist’s view that revenue increases should not be part of the deficit-containment discussion. 

To wit: The top Republicans in each chamber — House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader — have rejected using any tax increases to eat into spiraling deficits, even as Democrats participating in the talks led by Vice President Biden want to look at areas like tax credits and deductions for the oil-and-gas industry. 

In all, more than 95 percent of congressional Republicans have taken ATR’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. And with the national debt now in excess of $14 trillion, practically none of those GOP lawmakers are expressing interest in the sort of “grand bargain” — a combination of spending cuts and new revenue ­ — that Norquist despises.

“His influence is stronger than ever, in good part because the taxpayer pledge is part of any good Republican values,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. 

In fact, even Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) — one of the “Five Guys” left in the Gang of Six talks, with Coburn on sabbatical — is hesitant to take issue with Norquist.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Crapo told The Hill when asked whether Norquist had too much influence among Republicans.

The Idaho Republican added that, like ATR, he wanted a revenue-neutral overhaul of the tax code. President Obama’s fiscal commission — whose report Crapo voted for and was serving as a guide for the Gang of Six — did use revenue from tax reform to pay down some of the national debt.

“The notion of simplifying the tax code, broadening the base and reducing rates — and thereby growing revenue by growing the economy — is the right approach,” Crapo said.

For his part, Norquist casts himself as sort of an oversight officer, looking after the American people’s desire for a low tax bill. 

“We physically have a signed, dated pledge,” Norquist told The Hill in an interview. “Meaning: You can’t take it back, you can’t walk away, you can’t deny you did it, you can’t say you were misunderstood.”

But Democrats and some Republicans — including former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the co-chairman of Obama’s fiscal commission — complain that the GOP is, to use Simpson’s phrase, too in “thrall” to Norquist.

“If you’ve surrendered your brain and your duty as an elected official to handle these sorts of issues — if you’ve sold your soul — you ought to get out,” Simpson told The Hill. 

Democrats like Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a participant in the Biden talks and the No. 3 Democrat in the House, also say they believe some Republicans will eventually move toward their position on revenues.

The idea that Norquist’s status among Republicans would be this hotly debated might have seemed unlikely about five years ago, when he was caught in the swirl surrounding Abramoff. 

Norquist has known Abramoff for years, back to their college-era days as organizers for Ronald Reagan in Massachusetts. But unlike others — including former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) — Norquist avoided any serious trouble in the investigation that looked into, among other things, Abramoff’s lobbying for American Indian clients. 

“Jack did me a favor. He didn’t involve me in anything problematic,” Norquist says, adding that he believed political opponents had tried to “smear me” because of his links to Abramoff. 

Having survived that span, Norquist is expected to face off on Tuesday for the latest time with Coburn, after the two have exchanged barbs with one another over the Oklahoman’s membership in the Gang of Six.

The Senate has scheduled a vote on a Coburn proposal to eliminate an ethanol tax credit — a push Norquist calls essentially a trial balloon for future votes on new tax revenue.

ATR now says that pairing a vote for the Coburn measure, which does not offset the more than $5 billion the tax credit provided in 2010, with support for a separate proposal from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that does would be acceptable in the organization’s eyes. DeMint has said he supports the Coburn proposal, while a spokesman for the Oklahoma senator has said he is “likely” to be on board with DeMint’s measure.

But more broadly speaking, Norquist appears to have the support of other limited-government outfits and Tea Party groups in his showdown with Coburn — no small feat, considering the skepticism many Tea Party activists have had with candidates or officials with extensive ties to Washington.

Brendan Steinhauser, federal and state campaigns director for FreedomWorks, credited Norquist and ATR for reaching out to grassroots groups early in the Tea Party movement. Steinhauser said he first addressed ATR’s Wednesday gathering of conservative leaders shortly after the 9-12 rally in September 2009, and a spokesman for ATR said Tea Party activists have been attending the meetings for more than two years now. 

“What people are really concerned about is policy and principle,” Steinhauser said. “If you look at FreedomWorks, if you look at Jim DeMint, Grover Norquist, they’re principled. They stick to their guns.”