Still Looking for a Spine on Tax Cuts

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    In their Thursday morning meeting with President Obama, congressional Democrats wanted to know what the President’s strategy was on the question of extending the so-called Bush tax cuts, according to Carrie Budhof Brown and Glenn Thrush, writing in Politico. Apparently Nancy Pelosi laid it on the line with the President, telling him that House Democrats insist on extending the tax cuts for the middle class, but definitely not for the wealthy, those making over $250,000.  Unfortunately, she apparently did not get a commitment from Obama, said Glenn Thrush in a later article in Politico, who noted it was “a move that could complicate the administration’s efforts to reach a compromise with Republicans,” especially since Senate Democrats did not believe they could get such a bill passed by the Senate, although they wanted to force a vote so as to put the monkey on the backs of the Republicans. Democrats on the Hill keep telling Obama that he cannot appear weak in negotiating with Republicans, and that his constant talking about driving “the hardest bargain—- while signaling his openness to a compromise” inevitably sounds weak to Republicans

    Pelosi, having repeatedly produced excellent progressive legislation only to see it die in the Senate, is reluctant, I think understandably, to go out on another limb unless she can be certain that her Democratic President has her back. Thrush makes no bones about the disconnect, pointing out that “… it’s clear that Senate Democrats will need to quickly break from the House position and seek a compromise with Republicans that will allow tax cuts to continue for some families earning more than $250,000 a year – sharply at odds with the Pelosi position.” Haven’t we been in this spot before? Nothing good has ever come from this position.  

    Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) showed his frustration: “The White House needs to stand firm and say we’re not giving tax breaks to billionaires in this country….Every day we hear a little differently.” Congressman Gerry Connolly from the 11th CD in Northern Virginia, said “the White House had not been clear enough about what it wants. The first mistake was putting off the debate until after November 2.” He voted against adjourning before the election without passing the tax-cut bill. According to Politico, Connolly also said: “The problem is we have two immovable objects and the White House has an opportunity to force us to some common ground.”

    As an equally frustrated grassroots Democrat, I wonder, is Obama being perhaps too clever here, so absorbed with being seen as offering bipartisanship to the (dis)loyal opposition that he is, once again, failing to provide political leadership to his own troops? Shades of the health care legislation. The Republicans have cannily begun their bait and switch maneuvers by postponing the original joint, bipartisan meeting with the President to 30 November, and by raising the pressure when Senator John Thune (R-SD) commented,

    “If this thing doesn’t get resolved now, I think probably the first thing the House Republicans will do when they take control in January is pass a permanent extension and then send it over here and see what happens with it.”

    That would put the monkey on the Democrats’ back. To avoid that, many House and Senate Democrats want a one-vote strategy: just renew the middle class tax cuts, and “dare Republicans to oppose them.” Press Secretary Gibbs, says Politico, would not commit to the one-vote strategy on Wednesday, and on Thursday Obama, joined by “mostly silent Treasury Secretary Geithner and National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers,” continued his mantra of wanting a permanent extension of the under-$250,000 tax cut but also insisted on working out a bipartisan deal. The Hill Democrats offered such a wide variety of alternative proposals that the President finally told them to settle on whatever “compromise plan that would garner the support of their respective caucuses before they enter the arena with House and Senate Republicans during a Nov. 30 bipartisan White House summit.”

    I ask, is this not exactly how Obama dealt with the health care legislation: turn the problem over to the legislators, but provide no guidance? Granted, that restores the Constitutionally-defined legislative powers of Congress, a balance of power pretty much ignored by authoritarian Bush. I am afraid, however, that method, when applied unmodified, is risky in today’s atmosphere of the permanent campaign, when facing an intransigent opposition party that has repeatedly shown itself unwilling to co-operate in governing. It is my opinion that Obama provided no political leadership on health care, with unfortunate results. There is much on the table that absolutely must be dealt with in the short amount of time remaining for this lame-duck Congress. How the President and the Democrats deal with these issues will set the tone for the new Congress. Republicans are riding high, and already think they have pegged Obama as a pushover. We will all see how accurate their assessment of the President is, when we see how the tax cut issue plays out.