Five Republicans broke ranks and uttered heresy this week -- announcing they'd break Grover Norquist's iron-clad, anti-tax pledge as part of a fiscal cliff deal.
But if that looks like the beginnings of a Grover vs. GOP split, think again.
Norquist plays an anti-establishment attack dog on cable news, but he's no outsider. In fact, he's a creature of Washington, whose lucrative influence business is built on connections -- and staying in the good graces of Republican leaders.
"Anybody that has power has power because they build up some kind of trust. I think in all honesty, Grover has worked a long time to build up that trust on Capitol Hill," said former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who worked closely with Norquist on tax legislation during his leadership tenure.
Republicans across the ideological spectrum say Norquist is as influential as ever these days, since most trust that he'll support whatever fiscal cliff proposal leaders endorse in the end.
And his most recent statements, refusing to declare war on the Republicans who have signaled they won't be beholden to the pledge, is just another example of his ability to maintain flexibility. While remaining committed to the pledge, Norquist won't say specifically what tax increase Republicans can agree to in a deal without breaking the pledge.
"We have a spending problem, not a failure to raise taxes problem," Norquist told POLITICO.
All signs suggest Norquist is doing fine: Conservative activists are still clamoring to attend his weekly meeting and Republican leaders are still talking to him.
"There will always be a place for Grover," one Republican strategist said. "He's savvy. He knows what he's doing."
Some GOPers even argue that Norquist's boogeyman status on tax increases helps Republican leaders as they push for entitlement reform as part of a larger package on the fiscal cliff.
"I think it shows how much power Grover Norquist has that leaders up to the president have named him publicly and called him out," said Heritage Foundation's Brian Darling. "He is the party's greatest ally in pushing back on Democratic overreach."
Support for the no-taxes pledge created in the mid-1980s has grown over the years. In the 112th Congress, Norquist had 238 House members sign the pledge and 41 in the Senate.
For his part, Norquist told POLITICO, as he has done in interviews for years, that "the pledge is not about me. The pledge is a written commitment to [lawmaker's] constituents that they won't raise taxes."
He also discounts potential defectors, arguing that they'll be on board with the "no new taxes" mantra when it comes time to vote.
"To be fair to both of those guys, they have a vision of phenomenally big entitlement reforms that I don't think exists in the real world if Democrats have any say," Norquist said of Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).
Reps. Peter King (N.Y.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.) and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) have also signaled they will split with Norquist.
King has been particularly outspoken. The New York Republican said on POLITICO LIVE on Wednesday that it was "absolutely ridiculous" to be held to a lifetime pledge to not raise taxes.
"We're talking about an issue where obviously, I am opposed to tax increases as a general rule," King said. "I mean, Ronald Reagan raised taxes a number of times because that's what they had to do to close the deal. And if we need more revenues, I'm leaving that to the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to negotiate the best deal he can with President Obama."
Even Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), an ally to Boehner (Ohio), urged his colleagues this week that Republicans should agree to a tax cut for 98 percent of Americans and deal with rates for top earners later.
For now, Norquist said he is focused on selling Republicans on the idea that negotiations be broadcast on C-SPAN and that any deal should be put online for seven days. While it might seem a little pollyanna for a veteran influencer, who has been playing the inside Beltway game for decades, Norquist insists that his efforts are genuine.
"A deal that survives and gets the votes of the House and Senate has to be made in the light and day," Norquist said.
He's long been close with congressional Republican leadership, who regularly send staff emissaries to attend and talk at his weekly conservative meetings. Often those same Republican offices look to Norquist to be helpful with public statements in support of their policies.
And while breaking the pledge has long been feared, Norquist hasn't made a practice of putting the entire heft of his political operation behind unseating Republicans he is at odds with. His group, Americans for Tax Reform, has spent money against retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and outgoing Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler (Ky.) for breaking the pledge.
While the anti-tax crusader is taking knocks on both sides, this is hardly the first time he's found himself in politically precarious waters.
Norquist was glad to see President George H.W. Bush's reelection thwarted after the elder Bush broke the pledge and his "read my lips" promise. But unlike the disdain he had Bush Sr. for his support of increasing taxes, Norquist supported George W. Bush even though his policies grew the size of the federal government and expensive programs like the Medicare prescription plan.
"Grover is a realist," said Colin Hanna of conservative group Let Freedom Ring. "And yet there are certain elements of his realism which are nonnegotiable, so as this debate matures he may face some tough choices between his principles and his political realism and I know of no one else in Washington more capable and gifted at navigating such a tight passage."
Bush-era tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year are one tough policy area where Norquist may have to straddle the divide. He declined to talk specifically about whether expiration of the Bush tax cuts would lead to him opposing a package.
"One wants to stay away from hypotheticals," Norquist said.
And Norquist himself is philosophical about his future: "I have job security that most people don't have, OK? At least the marijuana legalization people could end up out of a job in a couple of years if they win, right? But we're always going to feel that our taxes are too high," he said.
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