The Taxpayer Protection Pledge has been the gold standard of Republican tax orthodoxy for decades.
Known informally as "The Pledge" and cooked up by conservative strategist Grover Norquist in 1986, it asks two simple promises of its signers: that they oppose any tax-rate hikes for people or businesses, and that they fight to keep all tax credits and deductions unless rates are simultaneously dropped.
All but 13 Republicans in the Congress - six senators and seven representatives - have signed the pledge. Such is its ubiquity in the GOP.
But now, with deficits and debt in the political forefront, the pledge is under attack from some prominent Republicans seeking to get U.S. balance sheets under control.
"I stand by the idea that we shouldn't raise rates," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told ABC's Jon Karl in an interview for his ABC-Yahoo! video series "Spinners and Winners."
"When you eliminate a deduction, it's OK with me to use some of that money to get us out of debt. That's where I disagree with the tax pledge. … We're so far in debt that if you don't give up some ideological ground, the country sinks."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, considered a possible VP selection for Mitt Romney, protests that he won't be asked to join the Romney campaign because he supports higher taxes. "If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we're going to have $10 in spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement, put me in, coach," Bush told the House Budget Committee, testifying before the panel in Washington this month. "This will prove I'm not running for anything."
At an August presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Ames, Iowa, every GOP candidate on stage declined to back a deficit-reduction deal that would favor spending cuts over tax hikes by a ratio of 10 to one.
Bush did not sign the tax pledge as a candidate or as governor, nor did he raise taxes while in office. "The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge. I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don't believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people. I respect Grover's political involvement. He has it every right to do it, but I never signed any pledge," Bush told the committee.
The recent criticism comes after a flap with Senate Republicans last year when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the Senate's resident champion against government waste, offered a proposal to roll back ethanol credits, running afoul of Norquist and his group Americans for Tax Reform.
Senate Republicans and Americans for Tax Reform danced around this problem, as Norquist sent notice that Republicans could vote for Coburn's ethanol amendment - and still abide the pledge - if they also backed another amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to repeal the Renewable Fuels Standard and eliminate the inheritance tax. "This elimination of favoritism toward ethanol is not a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge," the group wrote.
Coburn, however, supports higher rates, and he fully rebuked Norquist's pledge in May 2011. Coburn recently told "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart of the U.S. tax burden, "It needs to come up," Coburn said.
The senator backed the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan, which Americans for Tax Reform called a "$3 trillion tax hike."
The group, for its part, is warning against any tax-raising compromise before the end of the year.
Commentators "are salivating at the idea of another 'grand bargain' that gets Republicans to agree to raise taxes on American families and employers," the group wrote in a news release today. "Any lawmaker willing to consider such a deal is poised to become another fool of history."
Americans for Tax Reform cited budget deals in 1990 and 1982 in which, it says, Democrats went back on their word and Republicans didn't get the spending cuts they were promised.
"Moral of the story: When bipartisan deals are struck promising to cut spending and raise taxes, the spending cuts don't materialize but the tax hikes do."
The United States is more than $15 trillion in debt, having run consecutive budget deficits since 2002 and trillion-dollar-plus deficits since 2009. A "Taxmageddon" looms at the end of 2012, with the Bush tax cuts set to expire and with automatic spending cuts triggered in January, prompted by the deficit super committee's failure to reach a deal, unless Congress and President Obama can arrive at a compromise. Those eventualities have cast budget discussions in a desperate light, for Americans for Tax Reform and for everyone.
Norquist said he's not worried about Republicans agreeing to raise taxes anytime soon.
"I worry more about satellites falling on my head," Norquist told ABC in a phone interview today.
In his typically ebullient manner, the pledge architect had colorful words for both Bush and Graham.
"Former governor of Florida Jeb Bush hasn't been elected to anything in 10 years, [and he] gets asked a hypothetical question about 'ten to one,' which is the same question that ruined his father's presidency and cut it in half, and he answered it in the same way his father did," Norquist said. "Lindsey Graham is not a thought leader in the Republican Party … again, he's answering a hypothetical, which will never be offered to him, the idea that the Democratic party offers significant spending cuts in exchange for tinkering here and there with a couple tax credits."
After holding the line on taxes last summer, as the debt-limit stalemate threatened to derail both governmental functions and the U.S. economy, Norquist said the GOP holds a stronger position as this year's deficit discussion begins. He does not, he said, see trouble looming.
"I don't have to keep anybody in line. These are commitments people made to their constituents," Norquist said. "I think almost everyone will keep their word, and even the people who get weak knees will look around and find themselves all by their lonesome and run back to their foxholes."