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Anti-tax man Norquist defiant at "fiscal cliff" edge

By Patrick Temple-West and Kim Dixon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Prominent American anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist on Monday insisted that his movement was as strong as ever and that Congress would withstand pressure to raise taxes even if more Republican lawmakers are spurning his anti-tax pledge.

A vast majority of elected Republicans have signed Norquist's "taxpayer protection pledge," launched in 1986, which commits them to voting against tax increases, and it became a sort of litmus test among U.S. conservatives.

But the new House of Representatives, which takes office in January, has 16 Republicans who so far have not signed the pledge, up from six in the outgoing Congress. One new Republican senator, Jeff Flake, also has not signed.

Speaking on the sidelines of a Washington event, 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."

At the event, sponsored by the nonpartisan Center for the National Interest think tank where Norquist is a board member, he predicted House Republicans would withstand pressure from Democratic President Barack Obama to raise taxes.

Obama won re-election this month on a promise to raise tax rates on the wealthiest households while extending low tax rates for most other taxpayers down the income ladder.

He and Congress are trying to keep the country from falling off the so-called fiscal cliff at the end of the year when some $500 billion in tax cuts will expire and another $100 billion in automatic budget cuts will kick in.

Democrats gained seats in the both the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House with some Republicans softening their opposition to raising new tax revenue.

Though Republicans were stung by their electoral losses, Norquist said they can force Obama to compromise on tax increases and spending cuts by using the debt ceiling as leverage.

"The debt limit is an additional tool to explain to Obama that he is not the king," Norquist said. "He has to go to Congress for resources."

The U.S. Treasury Department has said it will have enough funds to avoid the ceiling until near the end of the year, and experts say they can use accounting maneuvers to delay the limit beyond that.

Some Republicans have assailed Norquist for his intransigence on tax increases. Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, last week lambasted Republican supporters of the anti-tax pledge.

"What can Grover (Norquist) do to you? He can't murder you. He can't burn your house," Simpson said at an event hosted by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an anti-budget deficit group.

(Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)

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