By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006; A01
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."
One Republican lobbyist with close ties to the House leadership said doors are not swinging open for Norquist the way they once did.
"Grover is about action and achievement; money has always been way down the list," said Gary Maloney, a political consultant and Norquist friend. "Something like this tying him to Washington-as-usual is unhelpful. But it will be short-lived in impact, assuming, as most expect, that this is the sum of it."
At the heart of his troubles is the Indian Affairs Committee report, which depicted Norquist as an avid participant in Abramoff's schemes to channel money from affluent clients, especially Indian gaming interests, to former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed.
"Call Ralph re Grover doing pass through," Abramoff wrote in an e-mail reminder to himself in 1999, a year in which Norquist moved more than $1 million in Abramoff client money to Reed and Christian anti-gambling groups. In another e-mail, from 1995, Abramoff told a colleague that Norquist would fight a tax opposed by a beverage company client, if the firm became "a major player in ATR."
"What is most important however is that this matter is kept discreet," Abramoff wrote in the e-mail. "We do not want the opponents to think that we are trying to buy the taxpayer movement."
In 1999, when ATR was receiving large donations from the Choctaw tribe, Norquist e-mailed Abramoff: "What is the status of the Choctaw stuff? . . . I have a 75g hole in my budget from last year. ouch."
Norquist said McCain and his aides "dishonestly" and selectively published e-mails that take ATR's work out of context. The group's collaboration with the Choctaws went back more than a decade, as the tribe sought to create a low-tax, free-enterprise government, he said. The $75,000 referred to in the e-mail, he said, was simply a promised contribution that was late.
But for Norquist, defending his business practices rather than fighting political battles is a vulnerability. Rivals and foes in the conservative movement have pounced on the report to stir up suspicions that Americans for Tax Reform may not be the pure free-market, small-government group Norquist says it is.
L. Brent Bozell III, president of the conservative Media Research Center, has been pushing hard for legislation that would allow cable subscribers to purchase channels "a la carte," rather than in large packages prescribed by cable companies. That way, he said, indecent and profane channels will not be subsidized by consumers who have no interest in viewing them.
Now, Bozell is accusing Norquist of forsaking his principles by opposing a la carte cable choice. Norquist says the bill would give federal regulators the ability to set prices and play favorites with cable programming.
"With cable choice, you do have to wonder whose interests Grover is serving," Bozell said.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., the firebrand director of the Center for Security Policy, has developed an anti-Norquist presentation, complete with charts and graphs, that he has shopped around to other conservatives, saying it shows Norquist's ties to terrorist sympathizers.
"This is the perfect moment to get the truth, because guys like Abramoff . . . have a powerful incentive to cooperate and get out the truth. At the very least, the questions should be asked," Gaffney said.
At issue is the Islamic Free Market Institute, which Norquist created in 1998 to steer Muslim voters to the GOP. To run the institute, Norquist tapped Khaled Saffuri, whose dealings with the American Muslim Council linked him to Abdurahman M. Alamoudi, a founder of the council, who pleaded guilty in 2004 to accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from top Libyan officials and admitted participating in a Libyan plot to assassinate then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Norquist dismisses Gaffney's charges as anti-Muslim bigotry and part of a long-standing vendetta against him. And he says he has never violated his small-government principles to raise a buck.
But he conceded that there are Republican lawmakers who want to see him weakened. He has been brutal at enforcing the no-new-taxes pledge he extracts from the candidates he endorses, so much so that many in the party are beginning to chafe, he said.
But the apparatus he has created for conservatives -- with fundraisers, social dinners and weekly meetings not just in Washington but in 43 states and even Europe -- has become too important to destroy.
"Grover supplies grass-roots power, which is why lobbyists want him on their side," said John Feehery, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "He senses where he can get activists around the country riled. He's a master organizer on specific issues."
As for Wednesday mornings at ATR, Feehery added, "I still think it's still the place to be."