Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist says he thinks his anti-tax pledge will survive the current wrangling over the fiscal cliff. 2009 file photo. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg | License Photo
Will they or won't they? Is it or isn't it? The answer to both of those questions may determine whether the United States falls off the fiscal cliff into a sea of tax rate hikes, an enlarged alternative minimum tax and draconian across-the-board spending cuts -- none of which anyone says he wants.
"They" are the Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate who signed their names to what has become known as the "Norquist Pledge," which reads:
"I, [fill in your name], pledge to the taxpayers of the [specific congressional] district of the state of [fill in the state], and to the American people that I will:
"ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
"TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."
The pledge is the brainchild of Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform, and who has made it clear those who violate the pledge will pay during the next primary or election.
The pledge has had a role in budgetary debates for more than 20 years but now is in danger of being cast aside -- at least temporarily -- as GOP lawmakers come ever closer to the fiscal cliff and some realize spending cuts alone won't accomplish what needs to be done, The Washington Post reported.
Democrats are pushing to allow lower tax rates enacted when George W. Bush was president to expire for the top 2 percent of taxpayers while extending the lower rates for everyone else. Moreover, several polls indicate the public is OK with this scenario.
Norquist has amassed lots of power within the Republican Party without ever holding an elected office ever since he floated his pledge in 1986. This year alone about 220 Republicans in the House and 39 in the Senate signed the pledge.
But now the question: Is the pledge really a pledge? Short answer, yes.
Norquist told the Post in 2011 his power source -- those original signed pledges -- is in a secret, safe place.
"I keep the originals in a vault, in case D.C. burns down," Norquist said, vowing to "oppose any and all efforts" to raise taxes. When someone takes the pledge, you don't want it tampered with; you don't want it destroyed."
Norquist says the document lawmakers signed is a commitment to their constituents that they must honor.
"The commitment for the pledge," Norquist said recently on CNN, "is that as long as you're in Congress you will rein in spending and reform government, not raise taxes. It's not for 500 years or two generations. It's only as long as you're in the House or the Senate."
But several Republicans, including heavy-hitters such as Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Peter King of New York, say pledge-signers may have to turn their collective back to help steer the country away from the fiscal cliff.
Later, however, Chambliss stressed he still opposes new taxes on his Twitter page.
"I'm not in favor of tax increases. I'm in favor of significant tax reform 2 lower tax rates & generate additional revenue through job growth," he tweeted.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., also has spoken publicly about breaking the pledge.
"I'm not obligated on the pledge," Corker said on CBS. "I made Tennesseans aware [when] 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."
"I agree with Grover -- we shouldn't raise rates," Graham said on ABC, "but I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can't cap deductions and buy down debt." Graham added, "I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee also hinted that Norquist's anti-tax pledge would not drive GOP strategy on the fiscal cliff.
Other conservative voices, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and commentator Bill Kristol, also expressed opposition to Norquist's pledge recently.
This year, a large number of GOP congressional candidates declined to sign it, the Post said.
For his part, Norquist says he's confident the pledge will be honored.
"Do I think everyone's abandoning the pledge? No," Norquist told the Post. "I don't think between now and 2014 that either the South Carolina senator or the Georgia senator will vote for a tax increase."
In another CNN interview, Norquist likened talks of ignoring the pledge with "impure thoughts."
And come primary time, he told the Post, "We would certainly highlight who has kept their commitment and who hasn't."
It's all about appealing to the party's base, analysts told ABC News.
"Most of the Republican House members and a large number of the party's senators are very safe in a general election. No Democrat can beat them," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The only place they can lose is in the low-turnout party primary, which is usually dominated by strong conservatives for whom the word 'tax' is almost an obscenity."
In another interview, this one with The Wall Street Journal, Norquist declared: 'No one is caving."
However, the Post reported Norquist indicated allowing the lower tax rates to expire may not technically violate the pledge.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said he doesn't think the pledge would be violated -- and Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform haven't flat-out said Cole is wrong.
Cole's premise is that because the Bush tax cuts are expiring, Republicans can vote to renew the rates on income below $250,000 and still not technically be voting for a tax increase on income above that threshold since tax cuts merely would be allowed to expire for the time being.
"I don't see that as a violation of my pledge," Cole said.
In 2011 interview with the Post's editorial board, Norquist seemed to suggest that allowing tax cuts to sunset doesn't constitute a violation of the pledge.
In the interview, Norquist was asked if he would denounce then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney if he hypothetically said the Bush tax rates had to lapse to put the country on a sustainable fiscal path.
"I would denounce him as a tax increaser and a bad guy," he said at the time. "It would not technically violate the pledge."