WASHINGTON Republican lawmakers who publicly mull acquiescing to tax increases on the wealthiest Americans may be guilty of "impure thoughts" in the words of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, but he says that alone is no reason to throw them out of office.
"Thinking something out loud is not treason," Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Reuters in an interview.
Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma are among a handful of Republicans openly weighing President Barack Obama's proposal to raise tax rates on household incomes above $250,000, the stickiest point in the talks to avert the "fiscal cliff."
"Right now, he has had impure thoughts on tax increases," Norquist said of the recent comments by Chambliss. "But nobody has voted for a tax increase."
Obama and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner met on Sunday in negotiations on a potential deal, about three weeks before some $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts begin to kick in, possibly igniting another recession.
Asked about Republicans giving in on taxes, Norquist said: "It may be unhelpful, it may be throwing marbles at Boehner's feet, but I think they are trying to be helpful."
Norquist's famed "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," signed by nearly every Republican lawmaker in the House and Senate, holds that they not raise taxes. Support has appeared to wane amid a drive to reduce deficits topping $1 trillion and with pressure from the latest fiscal standoff.
Lawmakers who sign the pledge vow to oppose any efforts to boost marginal individual and corporate income tax rates and to "oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."
Corker said on Sunday the party might be forced to give in to Obama on higher tax rates on wealthier individuals. Opinion polls show the public would tend to blame Republicans if the country falls off the fiscal cliff.
"There is a growing group of folks who are ... realizing that we don't have a lot of cards as it relates to the tax issue before year-end," Corker told the "Fox News Sunday" program.
Despite such statements, Norquist said it was too early to think about supporting more-conservative candidates to challenge lawmakers who seem to stray from the pledge.
Of Corker's comments, Norquist lamented that no one pays attention to the spending cuts the senator has proposed.
"All the advocates of bigger government hear is Corker will vote for a tax increase," Norquist said.
Norquist said Republicans do hold leverage - in their power to hold up approval of a hike in the government's borrowing limit - known as the debt ceiling. They also have the power to hold up approval of the so-called Continuing Resolution that funds the government.
If necessary, Norquist said, Republicans should only agree to the extension of these two levers every few weeks or once a month to extract spending cuts.
Political wrangling over the debt limit in 2011, including Republican demands for spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase, led Standard & Poor's to downgrade the U.S. debt rating for the first time in the country's history.
The existing Continuing Resolution expires at the end of March. The government is expected to run into its borrowing limit at year's end but has a few months of breathing room to shift funds around before it actually runs out of money.
Norquist's group, despite having more "non-signers" of the pledge in the Congress that will be seated in January than in the current group of lawmakers, spent about $25 million in the most recent election cycle, a record.
The group does not need to disclose its donors under tax laws, but Norquist said there are "more than 100,000 members."
Norquist, who began ATR in the mid-1980s, said he did not have enough details to evaluate whether Boehner's initial offer to raise $800 billion in revenue through unspecified closing of tax deductions and loopholes violated the "pledge."
He said he understood the offer is made "in the context of reducing marginal tax rates and broadening the base ... and economic growth."
(Reporting by Kim Dixon; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech)