Washington (CNN) - The person who Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calls "the most powerful man in Washington" - and who "has the entire Republican Party in the palm of his hand" - visited Capitol Hill Thursday for a briefing with House GOP members and their aides.
But even before anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist entered the ornate Ways and Means Committee hearing room to talk about tax reform on Thursday, Democrats pounced, saying his appearance proves the GOP is beholden to one man's uncompromising position against any tax increases. They also sought to highlight recent reports that Norquist may be losing some support among Republicans.
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Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich, appeared in the hallway outside the GOP session to criticize Republicans for "holding royal court for the person who single-mindedly is determined to prevent a balanced approach to deficit reduction."
Norquist was invited to brief House Republicans on the "pledge," a written oath his group, Americans for Tax Reform, urges candidates running for office to sign to show their constituents they will oppose any legislation that raises taxes.
Even though the vast majority - 238 - of House Republicans have already signed the pledge, Norquist told reporters the purpose of the meeting was to explain how the pledge fits into the debate Congress has begun on tax reform. But he also said it was a chance to respond to Democrats who he says are misrepresenting what it means.
"The pledge is not to me. The pledge is to the American people," Norquist emphasized repeatedly to the throng of television cameras and reporters waiting outside the meeting.
After the meeting Norquist responded directly, and in very personal terms, to Reid, saying of the top Senate Democrat is, "flailing around, he wants to have an argument with me. I'm not running for office, his Senators are and he's making them march off the tax increase, big spending cliff with him and the modern Democratic Party along with Obama."
He referred to Reid at one time as "desperate" and at another time called him "scared."
Democrats argue the pledge is the single biggest reason they have been unable to get a bipartisan agreement to reduce the deficit and deal with the host of tax cuts that are expiring at the end of this year. Reid, who virtually never misses a chance when he speaks to reporters to mention Norquist, opened his press conference with top Senate leaders Thursday noting that Norquist was due to arrive across the Capitol.
"The leader of Republican party is up here today, on the Hill. But you may be surprised to learn that it's not Mitt Romney, it's not John Boehner, and it's not Mitch McConnell. You know who it is. It's Grover Norquist," Reid said.
Also seizing on the meeting, the House Democrats' campaign arm circulated press releases targeting 60 Republicans in competitive districts around the country saying they were aligned with Norquist.
One release singled out Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who faces a tough challenge in the Democratic-leaning state. "Rather than creating jobs and preventing student loan rates from doubling for 7 million families, today House Republicans like Congressman Bartlett are learning new ways to defend their indefensible pledge to protect subsidies for millionaires, Big Oil and companies that ship jobs overseas," Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote.
Recently some Republicans have indicated they are open to breaking the pledge. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he could sign onto a deal that would trade ten dollars in spending cuts in return for one dollar in new revenue, a position that would violate the pledge.
Richard Tisei, the GOP candidate challenging Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts recently told CNN he didn't plan to sign the pledge.
"If there are loopholes that could be closed, help pay down the deficit, I don't want to tie myself up in knots, I want the option of being able to do what needs to be done to help the country," Tisei said.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer sought to highlight the divisions within the GOP on the pledge, saying the Norquist "blitz" on Thursday was "a sign of weaknesses."
"His relevance has been openly questioned for the first time lately and he's in full damage control," Schumer added.
But Norquist told reporters that more Republican candidates had signed the pledge this election cycle than in 2010, and cited GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's commitment to blocking any attempts to increase taxes.
House Republicans are drafting a bill the House will vote on next month that would extend the so-called "Bush-era" tax cuts that are expiring at the end of December for another year and lay out their plan to lower tax rates across the board.
Asked about some in his party who may be wavering on the pledge, House Speaker John Boehner restated his opposition to tax increases – comparing raising taxes to enabling a drug addict.
"Giving this government more revenue would be like giving a cocaine addict who wants to quit more cocaine," Boehner said.
But the Speaker, who failed to reach a deal last summer with President Barack Obama on a "grand bargain," which many conservative Republicans believe would have broken Norquist's pledge, also seemed to welcome more discussion among those in his party about "loophole closings" or 'tax increases," saying, "I hope they resolve it all actually."