By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON, June 27 - Grover Norquist, the man dubbed by many the most powerful Republican in Washington, said on Wednesday that his anti-tax oath is alive and well despite recent opposition from senior figures in the party.
Norquist, whose 1986 "taxpayer protection pledge" has been signed by the vast majority of elected Republicans, said the numbers prove his case that the oath is still in vogue. More Republicans today have signed the pledge than during the last election cycle, he said.
"In terms of electoral politics, more people are taking the pledge," Norquist told the Reuters Washington Summit, a gathering of lawmakers and influential figures.
Still, some prominent Republicans have suggested the pledge is creating gridlock, at a time when Congress suffers from abysmal approval ratings, and the nation faces a fledgling economy and high debt levels.
South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and former Republican Florida Governor Jeb Bush are among prominent Republicans calling for more flexibility on taxes.
"When you eliminate a (tax) deduction it's OK to use some of that money to get us out of debt," Graham told ABC News earlier this month. "That's where I disagree with the pledge."
Senator Roy Blunt, who is Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's liaison to the Senate, told the summit he was not sorry he signed the pledge but also acknowledged that "pledges would make compromise more difficult."
Democrats say federal tax revenue, which is at its lowest level in decades as a percentage of U.S. economic output, needs to increase to shrink deficits to sustainable levels.
"It is heartening to see some (Republicans) indicate that they are willing to close some of these tax loopholes for the purpose of reducing the deficit," Representative Chris Van Hollen told the summit on Tuesday.
Still, he was not sure Norquist's grip had been loosened.
"We've seen no indication from the House leadership that they'd be willing to do that," Van Hollen said.
Norquist said he is able to handle the occasional stray Republican. He had a phone conversation with Lindsey, who indicated he was willing to soften his criticism of the pledge, Norquist said.
Analysts at the Washington summit said that Republicans can circumvent the pledge in subtle ways, in areas like so-called tax expenditures, such as tax breaks for ethanol and second homes.
"Tax expenditures could give Republicans some wiggle room," Greg Valliere, a political analyst for institutional investors at Potomac Research, said.
Ethan Siegal, another investor adviser, said that if Republicans win the White House and deliver a debt reduction plan, sticking to the pledge could lose them the next congressional election.
Keeping the pledge would push them to seek cuts in pricey but popular programs like Medicare while not raising any revenue, he said.
"Mitt Romney will have in his second four years with a Democratic House and Democratic Senate. That is the kind of deal that the Grover pledge would force on Congress."
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(Additional reporting by Patrick Temple-West and Thomas Ferraro; editing by M.D. Golan)