By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Saxby Chambliss this week became the latest Republican lawmaker to loosen his ties to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax lobbyist famous for getting elected officials to sign a "taxpayer protection pledge."
The rebellion, albeit a modest one, comes as Republicans prepare to negotiate with Democrats and President Barack Obama on a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff - some $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to start jolting the economy at the beginning of 2013.
"I care more about this country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," Chambliss told Georgia television station WMAZ on Thursday. "If we do it his way, then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."
Chambliss, who represents Georgia, is a member of the so-called Gang of Eight group of senators, a bipartisan alliance working for deficit reduction, formed last year when the country was on the verge of default thanks to a partisan battle over raising the country's borrowing limit.
A vast majority of elected Republicans have signed the pledge Norquist created in 1986, which commits them to voting against tax increases, and it became a type of litmus test among U.S. conservatives.
But its influence, and that of Norquist's organization, Americans for Tax Reform, may be waning following Republican losses in this month's elections and acknowledgments from Republican leaders that revenue must be raised to pare deficits topping $1 trillion.
"Grover Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down. His plan says you continue to add to the debt. I just have a fundamental disagreement with him about that," Chambliss said.
Norquist, in response, noted that Chambliss was an author of an open letter to him last year from three Republicans promising support for revenue generation from the "pro-growth effects" of lower tax rates.
"Senator Chambliss promised the people of Georgia he would go to Washington and reform government rather than raise taxes to pay for bigger government," Norquist said.
Some Republicans contend they are only open to raising revenue through economic growth, an impact hard to quantify and which Democrats and many economists say is not nearly enough.
Republican aides on Capitol Hill have been grumbling privately about the attention Norquist gets, worrying that it weakens their ability to negotiate across the aisle.
Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican who won re-election despite disavowing the pledge, expressed similar sentiments publicly in a November 17 interview on CNN.
Rigell said he was a businessman and would "go where the numbers lead me. And a careful analysis of our budget and trying to reconcile that with the Americans for Tax Reform Pledge led me to the clear decision that the pledge itself is an impediment to meaningful tax reform."
Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said such comments showed taking on Norquist was not as risky as it used to be.
"Taking on Grover Norquist at this point is not the kiss of death it was a year or five years ago," Ornstein said. "Especially when you have a president winning re-election after making raising taxes on the rich a centerpiece of his campaign."
By signing the pledge, lawmakers agree to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business," and "oppose any net reduction" or elimination of deductions and credits, unless it is matched dollar for dollar with further tax rate cuts.
Among the other Republicans who have expressed misgivings about the pledge in recent months are Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Representative Steve LaTourette of Ohio, who is leaving the House, citing the polarized climate in Washington.
The new House of Representatives, which starts work in January, has 16 Republicans who have not signed the pledge, up from six in the outgoing Congress. One new Republican senator, Jeff Flake, also has not signed.
Democrats believe they have the upper hand in talks, after Obama's win over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a campaign in which Obama stressed the need for the wealthy to pay more in taxes.
Speaking on the sidelines of a Washington event last week, Norquist told Reuters: "People don't always take the pledge first when they run. A lot take it after they have been there for a while. The pledge isn't the only vehicle for stopping tax increases."
Chambliss, who is up for re-election in 2014, was asked in the interview whether Norquist would retaliate against him.
"In all likelihood, yes," Chambliss said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)