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Is Grover Norquist losing his influence?

To hear Democrats tell the tale, Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, is perhaps the single biggest impediment to a deficit reduction package that includes new revenue.

Wielding a no-new-taxes pledge signed by a huge majority of congressional Republicans, Norquist is seen by many on the left as the chief of the purity police - the most outspoken, powerful enforcer of Republican unity in opposition to new revenue on the federal ledger.

"You know, everybody's elevated Grover," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I met him for the first time this morning. Nice to meet him, but who is he? Why is he this guy who has captured attention in this?"

McCaskill, of course, knows perfectly well who Norquist is - her question was rhetorical, an almost-bewildered commentary on the centrality of this unelected, low-tax evangelist in the ongoing tax reform negotiations on Capitol Hill.

But if the last few weeks have been any indication, more than a few Republicans may be preparing to jettison Norquist's anti-tax dogma to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff."

Indeed, of the 38 GOP freshmen legislators that will assume office as part of the 113th Congress in January, only 26 have signed Norquist's pledge - a strong majority, but a far cry from the 96 of 99 GOP freshmen in the 112th Congress who signed on two years ago, reports Bloomberg News.

One incoming freshman, Rep.-elect Susan Brooks of Indiana, told Bloomberg News, "I am generally opposed to tax increases...but that doesn't mean I need to sign a pledge to demonstrate my desire to not raise taxes. I know that governing can be very difficult, and sometimes difficult decisions have to be made."

Brooks' avowal of flexibility follows the lead of several veteran Republican senators who have also recently made a big show of defying Norquist's pledge.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, made waves by declaring that he would "violate the pledge for the sake of the country."

And Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who has said, "I care more about my country than I do about some 20-year-old pledge," doubled down on his defiance on Saturday, explaining, "I won't be dictated to by anybody in Washington as to how I'm going to vote on anything."

To be sure, the Republicans who remain committed to Norquist's pledge far outnumber those who have publicly telegraphed the possibility of breaking it. Crucially, the signs of flexibility have come from the rank-and-file but not from Republican leaders in either house of Congress.

But even the few glimmers of apostasy are remarkable coming from a caucus whose prior adherence to the pledge was near-ironclad. A preliminary reading of the tea leaves appears to suggest that Norquist may be losing some cachet among the GOP officials whose support has made the pledge such an omnipresent fixture in tax-reform negotiations in Congress.

Some analysts see the push for flexibility more as a product of political expedience than an earnest, Pauline conversion on the question of raising revenue. "It's politically smart to cut the knees out from underneath Grover Norquist," explained Cokie Roberts on ABC's "This Week". "The emperor has no clothes, and to say that is, I think, very useful."