House Speaker John Boehner dismissed Grover Norquist as a "random" person on Thursday despite a week's worth of frequent references to the antitax activist on Capitol Hill.
The name of Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform president, has been on the lips of just about every political figure who's expressed frustration at his influence over Republicans, and their unflinching resistance to tax hikes in any form.
The reason is Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," the manifesto Norquist first drafted in 1986 which opposes increases in taxes. Boehner and another 235 House members have signed the pledge, as have 41 senators. The vast majority of signatories are Republicans, and only six Republicans in each chamber haven't signed the pledge. (All of the GOP's presidential candidates but Jon Huntsman have also signed.)
But today, when asked by NBC News about Norquist's sway over the GOP conference, Boehner downplayed the relationship.
“We are doing everything we are doing to get our economy back to work. It's not often I'm asked about some random person in America," the Speaker said of Norquist.
NBC News: Random person?
"Our focus is about creating jobs, not talking about somebody's personality."
NBC News: What he stands for, is that a positive influence in your conference?
"What he stands for???"
NBC News: Yes, his no tax hikes under any circumstances pledge, is that positive for your conference?
"Listen, our conference is opposed to tax hikes because we believe tax hikes will hurt our economy and put Americans out of work."
Boehner’s reference to Norquist as a “random person” struck many on Capitol Hill as odd; privately, GOP aides will often discuss Norquist’s influence on GOP politics and admit its significance.
The test of Norquist's sway, though, will come in the next few weeks, when the bipartisan, bicameral supercommittee is set to make its recommendations as to how to achieve as much as $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. Republican members of the panel are under pressure to agree to new revenues through tax reform, a prospect which Norquist has already decried.
Democrats and even some Republicans feel he has undue influence on deficit discussions because Republicans worry if they support any type of tax increase, Norquist’s group will attack them come election season.
Already, proponents of those kinds of reforms have begun to test the fealty of the GOP to Norquist.
Alan Simpson, the former Republican Senator from Wyoming and former co-chairman of the president’s fiscal commission said, “If Grover Norquist is now the most powerful man in America, he should run for president. There's no question about his power. And let me tell you, he has people enthralled. That's a terrible phrase. Lincoln used it. It means your mind has been captured. You're in bondage with a soul.”
Yesterday on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said of Norquist’s influence on Republicans: “They are in a thrall -- they're in submission to a man whose singular focus keeping taxes low for wealthy, they fear his political retribution.”
That was the second shot Reid had taken at Norquist. Earlier in the week, he said: "My Republican friends, these poor folks, are being led like puppets by Grover Norquist ... They’re giving speeches that we should compromise on our deficit, but never do they compromise on Grover Norquist. He is their leader.”