Powerful GOP Activist Sees His Influence Slip Over Abramoff Dealings
Sunday, July 9, 2006
For more than a decade, Grover G. Norquist has been at the nexus of conservative activism in Washington, becoming a Bush administration insider whose weekly strategy sessions at his Americans for Tax Reform have drawn ever-larger crowds of lawmakers, lobbyists and even White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Over the past six years, Norquist has been a key cheerleader and strategist for successive White House tax cuts, extracting ironclad oaths from congressional Republicans not to even think about tax increases. And even before President Bush's election, he positioned himself as a gatekeeper for supplicants seeking access to Bush's inner circle.
But in the aftermath of reports that Norquist served as a cash conduit for disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the irascible, combative activist is struggling to maintain his stature as some GOP lawmakers distance themselves and as enemies in the conservative movement seek to diminish his position.
"People were willing to cut him a lot of slack because he's done a lot of favors for a lot of people," said J. Michael Waller, a vice president of the right-leaning Center for Security Policy who for several years was an occasional participant at Norquist's Wednesday meetings. "But Grover's not that likable."
Norquist has lashed back at his critics, accusing them of dishonesty, personal vendettas and political gamesmanship. He has saved his choicest words for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose Senate Indian Affairs Committee last month stated in a report that for a small cut, Americans for Tax Reform served as a "conduit" for funds that flowed from Abramoff's clients to surreptitiously finance grass-roots lobbying campaigns.
"The idea that our friend John McCain yelling at me would hurt me misses McCain's position" among conservatives, Norquist said. "John McCain thinks he can't be president if I'm standing here saying he's got a problem with taxes."
Mark Salter, McCain's longtime aide, replied: "Obviously, Grover is not well. It would be cruel of us to respond in kind."
For now, Norquist's well-publicized financial links to Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is cooperating with prosecutors, have had little obvious impact on Norquist's prominence. Nor have they affected his signature event: the meeting every Wednesday morning at Americans for Tax Reform, where officials of conservative organizations, activists and lobbyists gather with Republican politicians to swap notes, make plans and coordinate messages. The June 28 meeting in downtown Washington was packed.
"I don't think he's lost one iota of influence in conservative circles," said Cesar Conda, a Republican lobbyist and a former top aide to Vice President Cheney.
But beneath the outward signs of normalcy, the infighting is taking a toll on Norquist's standing. Some social conservatives who have jousted with him over his more libertarian views on the regulation of television and its depictions of violence and depravity are exploiting his weakness to press their positions on Capitol Hill. Security-minded defense hawks who for years have questioned his ties to Muslim activists are resurrecting charges that Norquist has turned a blind eye to terrorist sympathizers.
Republican lawmakers who have chafed at his dogmatic position on taxes are also ready to shrug off his heavy hand. In recent interviews, a half-dozen conservative GOP lawmakers said they are consciously avoiding Norquist's meetings, and they have begun questioning the purity of an activist who has always portrayed himself as motivated by ideals, not money.
"For someone like Grover Norquist, his influence stems from the sense that he is not doing this for the money," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.). "To the extent that he may be seen playing both sides of an issue, that will give people pause."