Milbank: Congressional Republicans bend to will of Norquist

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoDana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

All hail Grover Norquist!

Bow down, Lindsey Graham. The Republican senator dared to say he might consider supporting a tax increase recently — but then Norquist paid him a visit. "Every once in a while you have somebody with an impure thought like Lindsey Graham," Norquist told me. But after their talk, Norquist could report that "Graham will never vote for a tax increase."

Kneel before him, Tom Coburn. Also a Republican senator, Coburn, too, had toyed with the idea of supporting a deficit-reduction deal that includes some tax increases, before Norquist conquered him. "He had a moment of weakness where he thought you had to raise taxes to get spending restraint," Norquist said. "He now knows that's not true."

Prostrate yourselves, House Republicans. On June 21, a day after Republican senators hosted Norquist on their side of the Capitol, Republican House members opened up the Ways and Means Committee room so that he could counsel them on The Pledge, an anti-tax edict written by Norquist and signed by all but four House Republicans, most Republican senators, and Mitt Romney. Lawmakers leaving their private audience with Norquist were agog at his majesty. "I agree with him tremendously," reported Rep. John Fleming, R-La. But Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means committee, had a less favorable view of the spectacle. "Ways and Means Republicans and others are holding royal court for a person who single-mindedly is determined to prevent a balanced approach to deficit reduction," Levin complained. "Essentially, Norquist is here to hold feet to the fire when we need open minds."

Norquist doesn't dispute that. The tax-pledge effort he began a quarter-century ago is now the defining mantra of the party: no tax increases, no matter the consequences. With the possible exception of Newt Gingrich, Norquist has done more than anybody to bring about Washington's political dysfunction. Since he began, the federal debt has increased roughly eightfold. But Norquist still believes that as soon as next year victory will be his -- all because of his pledge. "Because almost all the Republicans took it, it became, actually, the branding of the party," Norquist told me on June 21. Though I think Norquist's approach has been disastrous for the country, I am awed by his success with the pledge.

Now Senate Democrats are trying to turn him into the GOP bogeyman of this election cycle. "The leader of the Republican Party is up here today on the Hill … You know who it is: It's Grover Norquist," Majority Leader Harry Reid said at a news conference that Thursday, a couple of days after charging, with some validity, that Norquist "has the entire Republican party in the palm of his hand." Norquist didn't quarrel with the charge, as Fox News' Chad Pergram put it to him, that he's giving Republicans "their marching orders."

"The modern Republican Party works with the taxpayer movement," he replied, satisfied that "post-pledge, post-Tea Party, they're not going to raise taxes." That's likely because Norquist has convinced them that the long-sought victory is just months away. He predicts Republicans will keep control of the House, take over the Senate, elect Romney president and promptly enact the Ryan budget. "It would be nice if some Democrats join, but it's not necessary," he said, arguing that the Ryan plan could clear the Senate with only 50 votes as part of the budget "reconciliation" process.

This seems unlikely. Even if they could use the procedure Norquist favors (anti-deficit rules make this difficult), Republicans would have to make their plan temporary, like the Bush tax cuts. And the backlash would likely make the Obamacare rebellion look tame. We'd quickly be back in the stalemate.

But Norquist's loyalists in Congress are maintaining their ranks. "There are significantly more Republicans in Congress since they started taking the pledge," he said. "The advocates of spending more and taxing more are losing." Losing? Or just locked in an unending blood feud?