WASHINGTON — For decades, conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist vowed to drive Republicans out of office if they did not pledge to oppose tax increases. Many lawmakers signed on.
But now, several senior Republicans are breaking ranks, willing to consider raising more money through taxes as part of a deal with Democrats to avoid a catastrophic budget meltdown.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said the only pledge he will keep is his oath of office. The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, said no one in his home state of Virginia is talking about what leaders in Washington refer to simply as ‘‘The Pledge,’’ a Norquist invention that dates to 1986. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said he cares more about his country than sticking to Norquist’s pledge.
It is quite an about-face for senior members of a party that long has stood firmly against almost any notion of tax increases. And although GOP leaders insist they still do not want to see taxes go up, the reality of a nation in a debt crisis is forcing some to moderate their opposition. Republican legislators and President Obama’s White House are haggling vigorously as they look for ways to reach agreement on detailed tax adjustments and spending cuts before automatic, blunt-force changes occur at the new year.
‘‘Oh, I signed it,’’ Senator Jeff Sessions said on Fox News about Norquist’s pledge. ‘‘But we’ve got to deal with the crisis we face. We’ve got to deal with the political reality of the president’s victory.’’
The naysaying about the pledge is raising the question of whether Norquist — a little-known Republican outside of Washington — is losing his position of power within the GOP. It is a notion that he calls ridiculous.
‘‘The fantasy is that the Republicans would cave on marginal tax rates,’’ Norquist said recently. ‘‘They’re nonnegotiable.’’
Norquist, a native of Weston, Mass. who is the head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, opposes tax increases of any kind, whether eliminating deductions or raising rates. He has insisted on hard-line positions from lawmakers and, for years, has held outsized sway in the party for someone who does not hold public office. His pledge does not allow any change to the tax code that adds a dollar to revenues.
House Speaker John Boehner has called that notion unrealistic and has dismissed Norquist as ‘‘some random person.’’
Nevertheless, Norquist has maintained a certain level of clout for years.
Heading into the 2012 elections, 279 lawmakers had signed Norquist’s pledge, according to Americans for Tax Reform.
But some who have signed the pledge are having second thoughts. And when the new House is seated next year, no more than 212 of them consider themselves bound by the promise.
‘‘I’m not obligated on the pledge,’’ Corker told CBS News. ‘‘I was just elected. The only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve when I’m sworn in this January.’’