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GOP leader backs off Grover's tax pledge

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor distanced himself from anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist's pledge on Monday's Morning Joe, explaining that solving the fiscal

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor distanced himself from anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist's pledge on Monday's Morning Joe, explaining that solving the fiscal cliff is more important than the pledge he signed as a young member of the Virginia legislature more than a decade ago.

"When I go to my constituents, it's not about that pledge," Cantor said. "It really is about trying to solve problems."

Cantor maintained he isn't "warming" to tax hikes, but the fiscal cliff's automatic hikes and cuts set to take place at year's end have taken the pledge off the table: “We know at the end of this year, taxes are going up on everyone," he said. "That’s what’s changed.”

Cantor and fellow Republicans have maintained that entitlement reform is necessary if taxes are to be on the table.

"I don't care if you raised taxes 100% on the wealthy, you're not going going to fix the deficit spending problem," he said."We've got to have the president step up and say here's my position on how we reform the entitlements and start managing down this debt and deficit."

After the show, Cantor's office released a statement doubling down on his statements on Morning Joe.

"Republicans aren't against tax rate hikes because of any one man or pledge," spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said. "We are against hiking rates, because they're bad for the economy and hurt jobs. We've put ideas on the table that bring more money in while keeping tax rates where they are to produce job growth. It's now time for President Obama to put his ideas on the table for spending cuts and entitlement reform if he truly embraces a balanced approach.

Norquist, founder of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform, has seen a quick erosion of his power as the fiscal cliff approaches.

“Grover’s taken a big hit since the election, there’s no doubt about it,” Morning Joe’s Mike Barnicle said. “I’ve talked to a couple of United States Senators who said there’s at least 10 to 12 Republican senators who are willing to walk away from Grover Norquist on the tax pledge.”

Norquist has ruled the anti-tax lobby through his group Americans for Tax Reform for decades and controlled Republican opinion on tax hikes through asking young, rising Republicans to sign his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” and promise never to vote for tax hikes. Anyone who diverged from the pledge risked being lobbied against by Norquist and other pledge signers. In the current Congress, 238 Representatives and 41 Senators have signed the pledge, leaving just 13 Republican Congressman who haven't signed.

Norquist has seen several high-profile defectors in recent weeks: Rep. Peter King rejected the pledge on Meet the Press on Sunday, as did Sen. Lindsey Graham last week; and Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

This morning, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee also joined the growing GOP chorus backing away from Norquist. "I'm not obligated on the pledge," he said on CBS This Morning.

“Sanity is contagious,” New York magazine's John Heilemann quipped.

After the show, Norquist fired back that Graham and Chambliss were suffering from "impure thoughts":

[Congressman threatening to break the pledge] have not voted for a tax hike. They have had impure thoughts on present. Their impure thoughts did not change a single GOP vote in the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling which had a real deadline looming. One might have argued that the pledge died in 1990 when a sitting president and many in House leadership broke the pledge. However, the opposite happened, the pledge became more powerful when breaking it was seen to have very real consequence in 1992. After the 1994 election a majority of the House and Senate had signed the pledge.