Grover Norquist says Republicans will emerge victorious from the "fiscal cliff" fight if they put television cameras in the negotiating room and smoke out Democrats over their reluctance to cut entitlement programs — the biggest drivers of federal spending and the national debt.
In a meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Mr. Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform and father of the group's influential "no new taxes" pledges, said Republicans are at a tipping point after 20 years of building their anti-tax brand, and the most disastrous thing lawmakers in the GOP could do is put their "fingerprints" on a tax increase. It would be better for the party, he said, to get no deal than to sign on to tax hikes.
The influential conservative said that in order for Republicans to come out on top in their showdown with President Obama, every fiscal cliff meeting from here on out should be public.
That, he said, would stop the White House from "lying" to the public about how the president wants to handle the "cliff" — the expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and the $110 billion in automatic cuts to domestic and defense spending scheduled to kick in early next year, thanks to the bipartisan deal lawmakers carved out last summer to raise the nation's borrowing limit.
"Everything has to be in front of cameras," Mr. Norquist said, adding that it would be "much more difficult" for Republicans to come out on top if they continue to meet behind closed doors, because Democrats are saying one thing privately and another thing publicly. "They have been lying about their willingness to reform entitlements."
He also said Republicans should demand that whatever agreement the two parties reach should be posted online for at least a week before Congress votes on it.
Democrats and Republicans appear to be worlds apart in negotiations over how to avoid the fiscal cliff. Republican leaders are balking at the White House demand that taxes increase on families making at least $250,000 a year.
Republicans also slammed the budget framework that the White House floated last week, saying Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats need to "get serious" about spending cuts.
Mr. Norquist said the drumbeat for more transparency is building on Capitol Hill. He pointed to the demand last week by Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, that the talks "be taken out of the shadows."
"With public debate, people would learn facts that are now obscured," Mr. Sessions said.
Mr. Norquist has become a central player in the debate on Capitol Hill, thanks in large part to a handful of Republican lawmakers who have signaled a willingness to walk away from the Norquist anti-tax pledge.
That break in party ranks has created an opening for Democratic lawmakers, who have encouraged their Republican colleagues to rethink the Norquist pledge.
Standing on the floor of the Senate last week, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Mr. Norquist is now "out on an island" on taxes and that more Republicans are warming to the idea of letting some of the tax cuts expire.
"Grover Norquist has had a good run. It lasted far longer than 15 minutes. But his stringent views make him an outlier now," Mr. Schumer said.
Mr. Norquist, though, brushed aside the notion that Republicans are poised to abandon the pledge and criticized the news media for ignoring the fact that the GOP lawmakers who are flirting with a tax increase also are demanding serious changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that Democrats have been unwilling to accept.
"Nobody has actually voted for a tax increase," he said. "Nobody has raised his hand to say, 'I want to vote for a tax increase.' They've all said, 'I might under certain circumstances, if a pink unicorn was given to me, then I would do that.'"
Mr. Norquist was more critical of Republicans such as Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who has suggested backing a stopgap deal that would prevent taxes, at least temporarily, from increasing for families making less than $250,000 next year.
That tactic puts "marbles under Boehner's feet" in the negotiations, Mr. Norquist said. He said Republicans should fight to extend the Bush-era tax cuts across the board — even if that means going off the fiscal cliff — in order to save the anti-tax brand they have developed over more than two decades.
Lower rates will drive more economic growth, Mr. Norquist said, and generate more federal revenue that could help pay down the soaring national debt.
"[Democrats], however, aren't interested in more money. They are interested in Republican fingerprints on a tax increase so they can crush the modern Republican Party," Mr. Norquist said.
The 56-year-old anti-tax crusader, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, has rejected assertions by critics and skeptics who argue that the November election results reflect a repudiation of his group and other fiscal hard-liners.
In recent days, Mr. Norquist has become a fixture on cable news shows, defending the tax pledge, the tea party movement and fiscal conservatism.
In an appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," he predicted a huge midterm backlash fueled by the tea party if the solution or the failure to reach a deal on the fiscal cliff results in higher tax bills.
"Tea party 2 is going to dwarf tea party 1 if Obama pushes us off the cliff," Mr. Norquist said.
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