By Russell Berman - 11/04/11 12:19 AM EDT
Grover Norquist is widely considered one of Washington’s most influential conservative activists, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) brushed him off Thursday as just “some random person.”
Boehner is battling perceptions stoked by Democrats that Norquist has too much clout over the GOP.
At a press conference on Thursday, Boehner, who has signed the pledge himself, tried, unsuccessfully, to dodge the question of whether Norquist is a positive influence on the House GOP conference.
After a nearly five-second pause, Boehner replied: “Listen, our focus here is on jobs. We’re doing everything we can to get our economy moving again and get people back to work. So it’s not often I’m asked about some random person in America and what I think.”
Pressed by NBC’s Luke Russert if he really believed Norquist was a “random person,” Boehner said: “Our focus is on creating jobs, not talking about somebody’s personality.”
Under further questioning, the Speaker said the GOP’s deep-rooted opposition to tax hikes was based on policy.
“Listen, our conference is opposed to tax hikes because we believe that tax hikes will hurt our economy and put Americans out of work,” he said.
In a separate roundtable with reporters hours later, Boehner expanded on his comments about Norquist. “What I was attempting to do earlier in the day,” he said, “was to suggest that Mr. Norquist, like millions of Americans, believes that raising taxes is not good for our economy.”
Boehner’s comments come at a time when Democratic leaders have accused Republicans of demonstrating more fealty to Norquist’s pledge than to the nation’s fiscal needs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has excoriated Norquist on the Senate floor in recent days, hammering Republicans who have opposed the tax increases that Democrats have proposed to pay for Obama’s jobs plan.
A number of Republicans have also publicly criticized Norquist in the last several months, including Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (Va.).
In testimony to the congressional supercommittee on deficit reduction Tuesday, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) said Norquist “has people in thrall … It means your mind has been captured. You’re in bondage with your soul.”
And on Wednesday, one of Boehner’s House allies, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), called for a deficit deal that includes new revenues and told reporters that “it is time to put pledges in a bonfire.”
LaTourette, who signed Norquist’s pledge, helped collect 100 House signatures for a letter released Wednesday to the supercommittee urging at least a $4 trillion agreement that includes new revenues, spending cuts and entitlement reforms.
In a phone interview, Norquist said, “Boehner’s response to the question was good.”
He said Democrats had been trying to make the pledge “about some sort of personal thing with me” rather than what it really is: a promise based on their policy principles.
“They signed the pledge because they think [raising taxes] is bad policy … not the other way around,” Norquist said.
Norquist joked that he would have rather been called “svelte” but added that “ ‘random’ is better than ‘odd.’ ”
“Yes, I’m just an advocate for lower taxes, and I’m glad to have wonderful company,” Norquist said.
Still, he is not one to downplay his influence, noting that he works with the Republican leadership, committee heads and individual lawmakers on tax policy. As for the supercommittee deliberations, Norquist said: “I’ve been assured as of today that we’re not raising taxes.”
The 12-member congressional panel has just 20 days left to fulfill its legislative mandate of finding between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade. Boehner, who has become increasingly involved in trying to forge a compromise, made little effort to downplay the anxiety among lawmakers in both parties about the stalemate.
“I think the mood is one of nervousness,” Boehner said. “I think there’s pressure from both sides of the aisle on the supercommittee, and frankly on leadership in both sides of the aisle in both chambers. We have to come to an agreement. It is important for the supercommittee to succeed.
“Listen, if this was easy, these issues would have been dealt with in the last couple of decades,” the Speaker added. “If it were easy, the president and I probably could have come to an agreement earlier in the year. If it were easy, Sen. Reid and I probably could have agreed to something in July. This is hard, and everybody knows it’s hard.”
Boehner said he welcomed the letter signed by 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans calling for a big deal. “I appreciate their interest, their concern and their help in trying make sure we get to an outcome,” he said.
— Originally posted at 5:51 p.m. and updated at 8:19 p.m.