Washington (CNN) -- At the heart of the contentious talks between the White House and congressional Republicans on whether to raise the debt ceiling is a simple, one-sentence document many conservative lawmakers have signed, pledging not to increase taxes.
"I _____ pledge to the taxpayers of the state of _____ and all the people of this state, that I will oppose and vote against all efforts to increase taxes," reads the version of the pledge signed by Republican lawmakers.
The driving force behind that pledge -- and perhaps the most powerful man in Washington that you've never heard about -- is a bearded, unassuming conservative activist who has never been elected to a public office.
Grover Norquist, president and founder of Americans for Tax Reform, is both respected and feared in the inner circles of Washington.
He has worked under Ronald Reagan, is close friends with Karl Rove and has been connected to scandals involving onetime Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
His group, funded through both individual donations and major corporate dollars, has the grass-roots power -- and has used it -- to raise money, run TV ads and campaign against politicians who violate that pledge. He proudly points to trophies of those who have been brought down, defeated in subsequent elections after voting to raise taxes.
"These are people who voted for tax increases," he said, pointing to a poster hanging in his office, "and were defeated."
A Nixon volunteer
Norquist, 54, got his start in politics early. The son of a Polaroid executive, he grew up in wealthy Weston, Massachusetts, and, at 12, hopped on a train and headed to nearby Boston to volunteer for Richard Nixon in 1968. And, as a player in Republican circles for 25 years, he has held on to his conservative values ever since.
He unapologetically believes in small government, lower taxes and limited government services.
In a black binder are the signed pledges from most of the Republican presidential candidates -- Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, to name a few -- to not raise taxes.
Norquist also has secured the signatures of most congressional Republicans. It is those signatures, he contends, that hold the lawmakers accountable to voters.
"Nobody promises me anything," Norquist told CNN's Wolf Blitzer . "They promise, when they get elected, to the people in their state, in their congressional district, 'I'm not going to raise your taxes.' "
Names on file
He started the pledge campaign in 1985 and now has hundreds of names. He has the originals safely stored away, on file in perpetuity, just in case.
"We keep the originals in a vault that can't be burned, and we have multiple copies that can't be lost. So their pledges will be there forever," Norquist said.
This father of two young toddlers is a study in contrasts. He loves Janis Joplin, has figures from the adult animation series "South Park" on his shelves and dabbles in improv comedy.
But Norquist also has the ear of powerful Republican leaders, many who won't act on sensitive budget issues unless he has signed off.
In a recent comment at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, former President Bill Clinton made a veiled accusation against the power Norquist wields.
"He was quoted in the paper the other day saying he gave Republican senators permission ... on getting rid of the ethanol subsidies. I thought, 'My God, what has this country come to when one person has to give you permission to do what's best for the country.' It was chilling."
Norquist countered that Clinton took the quote out of context, trying to confuse the subject. He said his organization issued a statement reiterating its position that there should be no net increase in taxes associated with repealing ethanol subsidies.
"We wrote a letter saying, 'No, it's not, it's not a tax increase.' "
Close contact with the party
Every Wednesday morning Norquist convenes a meeting of prominent Republicans, political activists and GOP operatives to plan strategies.
If someone thinks about breaking the pledge, he likes to remind them of President George H.W. Bush who made the famous pledge, "Read my lips. No new taxes."
Bush broke that promise two years later, and lost the election to Clinton.
"The American people were very angry. He had a successful presidency, except for the tax increase," Norquist recalled.
Norquist is using his leverage and clout in the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations. He is pressuring Republicans to hold firm and oppose tax hikes as part of a compromise.
But his position, power and ego have angered some on the other side of the political aisle.
Michael Ettlinger, vice president for economic policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that Norquist's arm-twisting and hard-line stance make it more difficult for congressional leaders to legislate.
"Grover Norquist is a big problem," Ettlinger said, "but I think the people whose feet he's holding to the fire are getting tired of it."
Ettlinger contended many Republican lawmakers would be more willing to compromise, if not for Norquist's threats of retribution if they stray from the pledge.
"We're getting to the point where we need serious people to sit down and make serious decisions, and drawing really hard lines in the sand the way Grover does is hurting the country," Ettlinger said, "and I think people who are signing that pledge are starting to recognize that and realize that that kind of hard line just is not in the best interest of the country."