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Norquist's Rainmaker Skills Grow With Budget Impasse

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Norquist hosts weekly get-togethers at the Americans for Tax Reform headquarters and his Eastern Market home, where policy is discussed and expensive wine flows.

As Congress peers over the fiscal cliff, Grover Norquist is preparing to wrap up his most successful year ever.

The founder of Americans for Tax Reform and architect of the anti-tax pledge signed by almost every Republican in Congress has achieved Washington’s version of rock star status, with all the associated trappings and detractors.

ATR says it raised more than $20 million in 2012, dwarfing its previous record haul by more than $8 million. Norquist has become an essential component of media coverage of the lame-duck tax and spending negotiations. And even as some congressional Republicans disavow the anti-tax pledge, Norquist remains immutable in conservative circles.

Norquist is part of a cottage industry that’s made hay out of deficit politics, a group that includes former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., who now regularly command $40,000 to speak about the financial crisis.

“When the tax fights become high-visibility, we have more success,” Norquist told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview. “Whenever we go on talk radio and on TV, we get more support online. People just look up ATR and write us a check.”

In years past, the organization has stayed afloat with several million dollars in donations from corporations and conservative activists. But the swelling federal debt and the advent of the tea party movement — ATR’s logo is an illustration of the Boston Tea Party — has boosted Norquist’s public profile.

During the past two cycles, Republican groups have given millions to ATR in exchange for advertisements in key races. In 2010, the Koch Brothers-affiliated Center to Protect Patient Rights donated $4.2 million. Crossroads GPS gave $4 million, the largest grant the nonprofit arm of the Karl Rove-backed super PAC gave out that cycle, tax records show. This year, Crossroads helped ATR raise more than $20 million for campaign activities, Norquist told CQ Roll Call. The exact amount of the Crossroads donation is not available because the organization has not filed tax returns for the 2012 calendar year. A spokesman for the group did not return CQ Roll Call’s request for comment.

This cycle, ATR spent $15.7 million to go to bat for signers of the anti-tax pledge, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“He’s almost saying, ‘I dare you to break it,’” said one senior GOP congressional aide.

The pledge is a frequent topic of discussion in closed-door meetings of House Republicans on Capitol Hill, at which Norquist sometimes makes appearances.

“No corporate lobbyist would get that kind of name recognition,” the aide said. “People don’t refer to it as the ‘ATR pledge’; they refer to it as the ‘Grover pledge.’”

But Norquist has lost some friends on the right over the years. His spot on the advisory committee for the Republican gay rights group GOProud and his public support for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan irritated social conservatives. Yet as Democrats blame Norquist and his pledge for gridlock on Capitol Hill, Republicans of all stripes have rallied around him.

“These politicians, these elected guys, they come and go. Who remains? Grover,” said one lobbyist, who served as a Republican Capitol Hill staffer in the late 1980s.

Chinese food buffets at Norquist’s Eastern Market home in the 1980s and 1990s have morphed into a series of formal policy dinners that lobbyists for major corporations pay as much as $25,000 to attend. The events feature prominent GOP lawmakers such as Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and begin with “very high end” wine, according to one regular attendee.

But the real work is done at the storied “Wednesday meeting,” where Norquist ministers to his conservative choir at ATR’s downtown headquarters.

The powwows are an occasional stop for liberals looking for bipartisan support for their issues. Billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, former Vice President Al Gore and perennial third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader have all made presentations. Norquist has also franchised his small-government brand abroad, presiding over meetings in locales including London, Tokyo and Rome.

“I have job security that most people don’t have,” Norquist said last week at a forum hosted by Politico. “We are always going to feel that our taxes are too high.  . . .  The tax issue will be more powerful in 2014 and 2016 than today.”

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