Norquist tax pledge takes election hit

Republicans might have held the House, but Grover Norquist’s majority in Congress is all but gone.

Fewer incoming members of the House and Senate have signed the pledge against tax increases run by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, in a reflection not only of the seats that Democrats gained but of the success they’ve enjoyed in vilifying Norquist.

About a dozen newly elected House Republicans refused to sign the anti-tax pledge during their campaigns, and another handful of returning Republicans have disavowed their allegiance to the written commitment.

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With Democrats picking up seven or eight seats, that means the pledge guides fewer than the 218 members needed for a majority. In the Senate, where Republicans lost two seats, just 39 members of the chamber are pledge-signers, according to the group’s records. That is a drop from 238 members of the House and 41 senators  who committed to the pledge at the start of the 112th Congress.

Norquist’s diminished clout could have ramifications during intensifying negotiations over the so-called “fiscal cliff” and a grand bargain on taxes, spending and entitlements that leaders in both parties want to strike in the coming months. 

In the wake of President Obama’s reelection, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said Republicans could accept a deal that includes new revenue under certain conditions. Legislation that increases overall federal revenue could violate the pledge, which forbids its signers from supporting increases in the marginal income tax rate or the elimination of deductions and loopholes that are not offset with tax cuts elsewhere.

 Democratic leaders have blamed Norquist for the failure of previous deficit talks, accusing Republicans of bowing to his pledge in opposing an agreement with new tax revenue. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has compared Norquist to a “puppeteer” and dubbed the House majority “the Grover Norquist Congress.”

The Republican candidates who declined to sign the pledge in 2012 hail from a variety of states and districts, some safely red and others competitive. Most of the candidates said their decision should not be interpreted as support for tax increases.

“I don’t want to sign a pledge that’s going to tie my hands,” Ted Yoho, a GOP congressman-elect from Florida, told The Hill. “I need free rein to do what I think is right for the people in my district and the country.”

Yoho is no fan of taxes, calling them “a necessary evil, it appears.” He said one reason he did not sign the pledge was that he had never met Norquist. “To sign a pledge to somebody that’s not a member of Congress or part of my constituency, I don’t think would be very prudent,” Yoho said.

Susan Brooks, a newly elected Republican from Indiana, offered a similar explanation on the campaign trail, spokeswoman Dollyne Pettingill Sherman said. “She just took the position that she was not going to sign pledges,” she said. “That doesn’t mean she’s for tax increases. She’s not. She was very clear about it.”

In an interview, Norquist said Americans for Tax Reform counts 219 incoming House Republicans as signers of the pledge, which he frequently notes is a commitment not to him but to a lawmaker’s constituents. The members of the House and Senate GOP leadership have also signed the pledge. Norquist’s 219 figure includes members who signed the pledge but who have since disavowed it. 

“There are some guys who didn’t sign it because we didn’t get to them,” he said. “There are always people who sign it after they get elected.”

But Norquist acknowledged that the focus on the pledge by Democrats and affiliated groups might have had an impact. “There was some pressure from certain spending interests who said, ‘Don’t sign the pledge,’ ” he said.

At the height of deficit talks in 2011, Norquist faced criticism from some Republicans who said they did not feel bound by a pledge many of them took years ago when they first ran for the House. Returning Republican Reps. Mike Simpson (Idaho), Howard Coble (N.C.), Jeff Fortenberry (Neb.) and Scott Rigell (Va.), among others, all disavowed the commitment. A pledge-signer in the Senate, Tom Coburn (Okla.), also publicly battled with Norquist.

Norquist said the lawmakers knew at the time they signed the pledge that it was good for the duration of their tenure in Congress, and he has dismissed members who have verbally distanced themselves from it. “Nobody’s actually broken the pledge,” he said of those members. “That doesn’t keep me up at night.”

He is quick to point out that one Democrat who did sign the pledge and broke it by voting for tax increases, Rep. Ben Chandler (Ky.), was ousted on Tuesday.

Democrats declared victory on the tax question in the election, but they said it was unclear if Republicans would move on the issue.

“It should be a teachable moment for Republicans, but the Republican leadership continues to oppose making millionaires pay their fair share, so it looks like the lesson might have fallen on deaf ears,” said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

A House Democratic leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was more hopeful. “As far as [Norquist’s] ability to sway votes, it’s gone,” the aide said. “So I don’t think he’s a concern.”