Sen. Durbin On Potential Tax Cut Deal

NPR's Guy Raz talks to Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and Majority Whip, about a potential deal to temporarily extend the Bush-era tax cuts.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, some marriages are marriages of love, and other marriages are - shall we say - arranged, which is one way of looking at a possible compromise between the White House and congressional Republicans over whether to extend the Bush-era tax rates. Those rates expire at the end of this year.

Now, if a compromise is reached, those tax rates would be kept for everyone, including those earning more than $250,000 a year. In return, Republicans would back an extension of long-term unemployment benefits which begin to run out for some two million people this week.

Top Democrats, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, are expected grudgingly to back the plan. And Senator Durbin joins me now from the Capitol, welcome.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois; Senate Majority Whip): Thank you. Good to be with you.

RAZ: You said on "Face the Nation" yesterday that this compromise will happen, quote, "against my judgment." But I gather you would still back such a compromise?

Sen. DURBIN: I haven't seen the compromise. Here's the dilemma. I just left the deficit commission. We spent 10 months trying to figure out ways to reduce our spending by $400 billion a year to reach a reasonable goal in terms of deficit reduction and debt reduction.

Now, we're turning around just days later and voting in Congress to increase spending by giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in America. It just does not compute. If we're serious about deficits, I would think we could draw the line and say those at the highest-income categories ought to sacrifice something for America.

RAZ: Do you think there is a compromise, though, that will happen in the coming days? I mean, the Republicans are essentially saying there should be no tax increases for anyone in this economy. Democrats are calling for an extension of unemployment benefits. It seems that we're hearing that the White House is prepared to make a deal. You have been privy to some of those conversations. What is the likely outcome here?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, I can say that the leaders, starting with the president, who I believe is in the driver's seat, may come to an agreement. Whether it can be sold on both sides of the rotunda is another story.

RAZ: Do you think that the White House is compromising, sort of caving in too easily?

Sen. DURBIN: The White House is in a terrible dilemma. The dilemma they face on the one hand is to try to be sensitive to the deficit so we don't overextend tax cuts, make sure that middle-income Americans continue to receive help through the tax code that they've had for many years now and then weigh that against the possibility of doing nothing and watching an already weak economy start to slump.

RAZ: You served on President Obama's deficit commission. You backed the commission's recommendations that would eliminate the deficit within 25 years. If there is some kind of agreement to extend unemployment benefits but also to extend those Bush-era tax rates for, let's say, a year or two - as you know, that would actually create an even greater short-term deficit - would you still be prepared to sort of, I guess, grudgingly support it?

Sen. DURBIN: I won't rule it out. I'll tell you that I don't want us to hit the deficit breaks during the recession. We have to stimulate this economy and get people back to work. That is job one. It's our job.

But once we've turned that corner, and our economy looks strong again, and people are coming back to work, we have to get very serious about this deficit. That's why I voted for the commission report.

RAZ: Richard Durbin, some of your colleagues, Democrats, have criticized the White House, saying that the administration is not getting enough in return for making that possible concession, to allow an extension of those tax rates to go forward. What would be a better deal? What should the White House be asking for?

Sen. DURBIN: The White House could ask for many things. The question is: What would the Republicans concede? We certainly are not going to stand by on the Democratic side. I don't believe the president supports the position that these tax cuts should be made permanent at the highest levels. We would certainly support it for middle-income and working families. So that's something that's off the table.

What should be on the table: more stimulus, from my point of view, immediate stimulus. The idea of a payroll tax holiday was part of the deficit commission report: the idea of reducing, for example, payroll taxes so individuals have more spending income in the months ahead, when this economy needs a shot in the arm. These are things I'd like to see to stimulate the economy and get us out of this recession.

RAZ: So what leverage do Democrats have now?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, there is, you know, there's a group that may walk and say at some point you've gone too far. If the Republicans overreach, if they start including some of their pet projects into this compromise, when it comes to the tax code, you could find a walkout on the Democratic side, people saying you've just pushed it too far.

RAZ: Senator Durbin, thank you so much.

Sen. DURBIN: Thank you, too.

RAZ: That's Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.

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