GUY RAZ, host: The man many Democrats believe is the main obstacle to a deal over raising the debt ceiling doesn't even hold elected office. His name is Grover Norquist, and he heads the powerful lobby group Americans for Tax Reform. More than 95 percent of congressional Republicans have signed Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge. It's an ironclad commitment to oppose any and all new taxes.
Norquist's influence on the Republican Party cannot be overstated - something even the president made passing reference to last night, when he described the letters he receives from ordinary American citizens.
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President BARACK OBAMA: For us to be more worried about what some funder says, or some talk radio show host says, or what some columnist says, or what pledge we signed back when we were trying to run, or worrying about having a primary fight - for us to be thinking in those terms, instead of thinking about those folks, is inexcusable.
RAZ: I talked with Grover Norquist yesterday, and he denies that he's the primary reason why Republicans won't compromise on taxes.
GROVER NORQUIST: The pledge is out there, frankly, independent of me. I introduced candidates to it, but it's between incumbent office holders and their voters. I mean, if I got hit by a truck, they would still have to get re-elected by the people they previously got re-elected to, promising not to raise taxes. I facilitated putting them together.
RAZ: But I mean, you could, of course, put the resources into an opposition candidate, or another candidate in the primary.
NORQUIST: If somebody breaks the pledge or votes for tax increases, we would very much like to highlight to voters the position of that candidate. That's true.
RAZ: And that, of course, worry some congressional Republicans. They don't want you to go after them.
NORQUIST: Well, yes. But if you look at who's in Congress right now, they're not against taxes because I asked them to. They're not against taxes because they think that's the politically popular thing to do this week. These are true believers. These are people who ran for office because they thought the government...
RAZ: But against tax increases in all cases, absolutely; no compromise.
NORQUIST: No net tax increase, yes. As long as there was a tax cut of the same size and the same duration, in the same bill.
RAZ: Almost every economist, as you know, Grover Norquist, and the blue ribbon Simpson-Bowles commission, says you can't even begin to tackle the issue of the federal debt without some combination of spending cuts and some tax increases. I mean, do you think they're wrong?
NORQUIST: Yes. I certainly disagree. It can only be done through spending restraints.
RAZ: Only through spending cuts.
NORQUIST: Right. If you raise taxes - we know the politics of it is when you raise taxes, the politicians spend the money. You cannot reduce the size of government while increasing taxes. Spending has to come down, leave taxes...
RAZ: It's about starving the beast.
NORQUIST: Well, it's about not feeding the beast, and encouraging him that he doesn't have to quit.
RAZ: What do you think the average taxpayer should expect from the government in return for paying the taxes that you think that they should pay?
NORQUIST: Well, as a taxpayer advocate and somebody for limited government, I take the same approach as Samuel Gompers took as an early labor leader - when businessmen would go come, come; what do you want? And his answer was, more - OK? More this year; next year ask me, I'll want more. The year after that, I'll want more.
What do I want? I want less government spending and lower taxes; and next year, less; and the year after that, less.
I'm a Fabian small-market guy. I'm not interested in kind of the government half tomorrow. I think that's not - that's a silly way to try and cut back the cost of government. Let's look at those things that are least constructive; those things that are damaging rather than helpful. So there are a lot of things we can do that reduce the cost and scope of government. We can also stop growing the government in new and different areas. I'm not in favor of taking some meat cleaver to government spending, but we can shrink it. And certainly, don't throw more cash at it to expand.
RAZ: If there is no deal, say, and the country goes into default, some people will say it's because of the anti-tax pledge that so many congressional Republicans have signed. Would you feel responsible, in any way? I mean, economists are suggesting this could result in an economic crisis.
NORQUIST: I think it'd be a big mistake to go into default. And I do not believe that whatever his left-of-center ideological views are, that Obama will allow his desires for tax increases to have him close the government down rather than sign a deal that just cuts spending. So I don't think Obama is more committed to tax increases than he is to the good of the country.
RAZ: OK. But if it did happen, you would not feel responsible in any way?
NORQUIST: Obama would be responsible. He's the guy vetoing a plan.
RAZ: That's Grover Norquist. He heads Americans for Tax Reform, and is the author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge that's been signed by 95 percent of congressional Republicans. Grover Norquist, thank you.
NORQUIST: Good to be with you.
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