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Pledge writers pressure lawmakers to toe line in debt crisis

By Kevin Bohn and Eric Wilkens, CNN
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Boehner on debt: 'Time is running short'
  • Both Republicans and Democrats have signed pledges by various advocacy groups
  • Both sides are pushing members of Congress to stand their ground
  • "Special interest pledges" are "driving us off a cliff," says ex-U.S. Comptroller David Walker

Washington (CNN) -- With the clock ticking down until the U.S. hits its debt ceiling, conservative and progressive third-party interest groups whose pledges lawmakers have signed their names to are ratcheting up the pressure to keep them in line.

One of the biggest sticking points in negotiating a deal to raise the debt ceiling while addressing the long-term deficit has been Republican demands that there be corresponding dollar-for-dollar cuts in federal spending, that taxes cannot be increased to pay down the deficit, or that a balanced budget amendment is the only way to get the government on a path to longer-term fiscal health.

Progressive interest groups oppose cuts to entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- and insist on getting rid of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

The interest groups who wrote the pledges now have new power in Washington are pushing members of Congress to stand their ground. In the process, some say they are wielding too much influence over those elected to lead.

With names like "Americans for Tax Reform," "Progressive Change Campaign Committee" and others, their grip on lawmakers is profoundly reshaping the landscape of politics in Washington and around the country.

The king of making candidates and officeholders sign pledges on the Republican side is Grover Norquist, who runs Americans for Tax Reform.

"The American taxpayers are a powerful force. They don't want their taxes raised. Obama and the Democrats have a fight with the American people, not with me," Norquist said on CNN's "The Situation Room."

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All but one of the presidential contenders, 236 members of the House and 41 senators have signed the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," created in 1986. By signing it, a candidate or elected official vows to oppose and vote against tax increases.

Several left-leaning organizations are also pushing members to stand firm on their priorities by sending e-mail blasts on Monday and organizing events outside congressional offices nationwide on Tuesday to push lawmakers to oppose cuts in entitlements.

Groups like, the AFL-CIO, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Campaign for America's Future and Change Nation sponsored an "emergency call-in day" to congressional offices last week "to demand Democrats in the House and Senate stand strong and keep their promises to reject any debt deal that slashes programs for seniors and working families while doing little or nothing to make the rich and corporations pay their share," according to a press release from organizers.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is asking donors to the president's re-election campaign to sign a pledge to withhold their financial support if the administration pushes entitlement cuts. The group has also based its prior endorsements of candidates on answers to its policy questionnaires. The committee's Adam Green said, "Pledges are no different than making a campaign promise," and then it is up to voters to see whether politicians keep their word.

On the right, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, was the major backer of the "cut, cap and balance" pledge, which vowed to cut and then cap federal spending and to get a balanced budget amendment passed. Nine Republican presidential candidates, many members of Congress and other candidates, and about 239,000 American citizens have signed it.

Some political observers, however, are taking aim at the pledges, saying they are harming the nation's political system.

Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who co-chaired a deficit reduction commission, was asked by Time if he would have signed Norquist's pledge.

"Hell, no! Why would you sign anything before you went into office or before you had the debate and listened to it?" said Simpson.

In the past couple of months, Republican presidential candidates have signed pledges not only dealing with taxes and deficit reduction but also ones to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.

The sponsors of these pledges and some of the candidates signing them say the documents are good for the country by helping enact policies that guarantee conservative principles.

"Thanks to groups concerned with issues ranging from the national debt to the value of innocent life, we candidates have now been given an opportunity to offer something as serious as the vote we are asking for -- a solid commitment, a solemn promise. When we sign these pledges, that is what we are doing, solemnizing our words," Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in a recent USA Today op-ed.

While many of the Republican presidential hopefuls have signed multiple pledges, one leading candidate has refused to sign any of them.

"Other than the Pledge of Allegiance, I don't do a whole lot of pledges," former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said on CNN's "American Morning."

Earlier this month, Republican presidential candidates Santorum and Michele Bachmann sought to clarify their support of a pledge that contained a controversial preamble suggesting black children born into slavery had better family structures than black children now.

The excerpt was later removed from "The Marriage Vow -- A Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family," a pledge issued by the conservative Christian organization The Family Leader, an important social conservative group in Iowa.

David Walker, former comptroller of the United States under Republican and Democratic presidents, is pushing a far-reaching debt-reduction plan of spending cuts involving entitlements and major tax reform.

"You have people on the right signing written pledges to special interest groups (saying) 'I won't ever raise taxes,' and you have people on the left signing similar written pledges to left groups saying 'I won't reform Social Security and Medicare,' which means we're going over a cliff. So it's time for leadership, and it's time for courage, and it's time for existing members and prospective candidates to rescind all written pledges to special interest groups and to reject pledges," he said.

"We've got special interest pledges that are polarizing our situation and driving us off a cliff."

CNN's Gabriella Schwarz, Lisa Sylvester and Jason Hanna contributed to this story.