Congressional Black Caucus Chair Supports Obama, Not His Tax Cuts

President Obama has come under fire from fellow Democrats for his deal with House Republicans, to extend Bush-era tax cuts. The agreement includes extended tax cuts for America’s wealthiest. Host Michel Martin discusses the anger directed at the President with Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee, of California.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Later in the program, we'll hear about a tough anti-illegal immigration measure in Arizona that's being challenged in the Supreme Court today. It's not the one that's gotten all the headlines, either. It's intended to make it tough on employers. We'll hear more about it.

But, first, a newsmaker interview with the outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Barbara Lee. She's finishing up her term as chair at a time when anger at President Obama in her caucus and among other progressives is at a fever pitch. The immediate cause of the anger: his deal with Republicans on extending tax cuts, including those to the wealthiest Americans that date back to the presidency of George W. Bush.

The White House called a news conference on short notice yesterday to give the president a chance to make his case.

President BARACK OBAMA: I will be happy to see the Republicans test whether or not I'm itching for a fight on a whole range of issues. I suspect they will find I am. And I think the American people will be on my side on a whole bunch of these fights. But right now, I want to make sure that the American people aren't hurt.

MARTIN: The deal with Republicans does include an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, and a one-year payroll tax cut for all workers. But the president's words did not appease those who believe he gave in too soon and got too little for it.

Here's New York Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner on CNN.

Representative ANTHONY WEINER (Democrat, New York): I think that, to some degree, he underplays his hand. And as I said today, it's almost as if he wants to punt sometimes on third down.

MARTIN: Now we want to hear what Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee has to say about this. She is a Democrat. She represents Oakland, California. She's in the final weeks, as we said, of her tenure as chair of the CBC. We also want to hear more about her tenure and what her advice would be to her successor. And she's with us now from the studios at the House of Representatives.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Good to be with you today, Michel.

MARTIN: I want to start with this whole question of the deal that the president's proposing on extending the Bush-era tax cuts for everybody, which also includes, as we said, an extension of job benefits for the long-term unemployed. Some of the commentators have been particularly harsh. Some of the African-American commentators have been particularly harsh.

Laura Washington writing in the Chicago Sun-Times raised the question again of whether the president is black enough. Frank Rich, who is a columnist for The New York Times said the president seems to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Courtland Milloy in The Washington Post said that Obama is proving himself to be a most peculiar commander-in-chief. Maybe another black boy will someday grow up to become president. But if he turns out to be like Obama, it'll be hard to call him a black man.

There's some very tough words, and I'd like to ask whether you share that point of view.

Rep. LEE: I do not share that point of view. The president - and when you look at the last two years under his leadership, he, first of all, inherited a very horrible situation and has done remarkably well in terms of stopping the bleeding and helping to begin to turn the economy around. And what I think we need to do, and the Congressional Black Caucus has been doing, is to make sure that our economic policies leave no one behind.

And that is why I do not intend to support, personally, this tax cut package, because, in fact, yes, we voted many times to extend unemployment. We must do that. The payroll tax provisions are good. But, of course, when you look at the deficit - and all of us want to get rid of this deficit - this bill and the proposal really digs a deeper hole. And when you're looking at reducing the...

MARTIN: Congresswoman, I'm sorry, can I just interrupt you just for one second?

Rep. LEE: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: So, are you saying you're not personally disappointed in the president, but you're still not going to support him?

Rep. LEE: I'm not personally disappointed in the president. I am not supporting, however, this package, as it is presented.

MARTIN: Because?

Rep. LEE: When you - I'm not supporting it because, first of all, it's going to cost the country - it's going to help create a bigger hole in terms of the deficit. We're talking about 800 billion, maybe a trillion dollars. We're digging ourselves deeper in the hole. I did not support the Bush-era tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts. I don't believe that the wealthy need to get away scot-free. And so I think we need to go back to the drawing board. I hope the president does this, in essence.

And I understand the art of compromise, but I also know that we cannot afford to allow a Republican agenda to drive our Democratic agenda, which ensures that we leave no one behind and that we create jobs for the unemployed and that we help to begin to turn the economy around. I do not believe this does that.

MARTIN: Well, it seems to me that those were the sentiments, albeit more politely phrased than some have been in the last day or so. Those seem to be the sentiments to which President Obama's remarks were directed at his press conference yesterday. So I'll just play another short clip of what he had to say to that point.

Pres. OBAMA: People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are. And in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting condition, or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out. That can't be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can't be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.

MARTIN: To which you reply?

Rep. LEE: I don't believe this is a purist position that many of us have. And let me just say, for the record, I supported a public option. We know that a public option would have helped to reduce the deficit and kept the cost of insurance and health care down for the American people. We couldn't win that fight. We compromised. I myself and others who wanted a public option, we voted for that bill.

When the recovery package came forward, myself and many believed that the 780 billion was not enough to turn the economy around and to create the numbers of jobs. We advocated for a trillion dollars-plus. We didn't win that fight. We compromised. We voted for the package, as it was, at the $700-plus billion. When we had to make sure the teachers' jobs were saved, unfortunately, the administration in the Senate cut food stamps. We did not want that to happen because that was attacking the safety net for the least of these.

What did we do? We voted for the teachers' fix, as we called it, and cut food stamps. When the child nutrition bill came up, many of us had heartburn about not the bill, because we think that the first lady and her campaign is wonderful and it's really going to address childhood obesity and the incidences of diabetes and all of the health risk factors now that young people are faced with. Unfortunately, the fix and the pay for part of it was cutting food stamps again.

MARTIN: So in essence, you're saying you sacrificed enough or you compromised enough. Is that what you're telling us?

Rep. LEE: What I'm saying is even with the black farmers' settlement, which I'm very proud of - the Congressional Black Caucus led this fight to work on, WIC, that program was cut to settle this lawsuit. And so all I'm saying is that we understand the art of compromise and 95, 99 percent of what has been put forward, we have supported in the spirit of unity and in the spirit of doing the right thing on behalf of the American people.

But cutting food stamps - and the president, to his credit, gave a public commitment that he would try to find money to backfill this. But we know next year is going to be tough. And so what I am saying is that when you look at the Congressional Black Caucus and other caucuses in our Democratic caucus, we have done remarkably well in helping to shepherd the president's agenda through with many, many compromises.

MARTIN: So, why aren't you supporting this one?

Rep. LEE: I'm not supporting this one because I believe that in two years, first of all, we'll be back to where we were under the Bush administration. I can't forget and I don't think the public can forget the massive job loss that was taking place as a result of the Bush tax cuts. When you look at the deficit, when you look at where we were when President Clinton was in office, versus where we were when the Bush administration left office - dismal. It was disastrous.

And that is why it's been so difficult to begin to turn this economy around. And so I'm not going to go for the same policies of the past that created the pain and the suffering that so many people are experiencing and that's a direct result of the types of tax cuts for the wealthy that are being proposed under this package.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Representative Barbara Lee of Oakland. She is currently the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and she's finishing her tenure in that post. We're talking about the president's compromise with congressional Republicans to extend the Bush era tax cuts. And we're also hoping to talk a little bit about Chairman Lee's tenure.

I'd like to talk about your tenure as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus more broadly, if we could, in the couple of minutes that we have left. Now, you say you're not personally disappointed with President Obama. But, however, you feel that this particular compromise is one step too far for you. Which sentiment, do you think, represents kind of the consensus of the caucus?

Is it the one that I expressed with some of the African-American columnists who've been running - and also progressive, you know, white columnists who've been writing some very tough words about him, saying that he doesn't stand up enough for, you know, core principles and the principles that many people feel they voted for when they voted for him?

Or do you think more people take your view that on a personal level you're fine with him and you think perhaps he did the best he could, but you just can't support the policy direction that he's taken?

Rep. LEE: Well, I think when you look at how the Congressional Black Caucus has worked with the White House and the president over the last two years, that will sort of set out and set forth the attitude and the type of work that we have done together. When you look at many of the agenda items of the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, which is very important in African-American and communities of color, we had a sentencing law that was 100 to 1 in terms of crack powder cocaine disparities. We were able to reduce that to 18 to 1. Not 1 to 1, which many of us believed it should've been.

But, again, in the spirit of compromise, we reduced it to 18 to 1. The Congressional Black Caucus led that effort. The president signed it in to law. When you look at increasing the amount of funding for minority serving institutions, historically black colleges, Hispanic serving institutions, we were able to champion a huge increase for our young people in those institutions. And I share that because there are many, many issues that many of us want and will continue to fight for.

And so we don't personally take any failure or any loss at that level. We just know that we have to keep fighting for what is right and for an agenda, a policy agenda that makes sense and we're going to always have disagreements with any president because we're members of Congress.

And, you know, historically the Congressional Black Caucus has always been known as the conscience of the Congress. We've been around for 40 years. And so we have to push the envelope on behalf of the poor, on behalf of working people, on behalf of middle income people. We have to make sure, just as we've done three times this year, and this was an effort that the Congressional Black Caucus led, to include summer jobs in our jobs programs, to include workforce training, workforce development efforts in our initiatives. The president supported that. But of course, they died in the Senate.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break. But when we come back, we will have more with Congresswoman Barbara Lee. She's the outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes we will turn to two different countries struggling with a similar problem: electing and placing a president in office that most voters actually recognize as having won the election. We'll hear from both Haiti and the Ivory Coast, which is in west Africa, in just a few minutes.

But, first, a few more minutes in my conversation with the outgoing Congressional Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee. She spent the last two years in the post. In the last few minutes we've been talking about strong differences of opinion with the president, particularly and most recently on his tax cut extension deal with Republicans. In the few minutes we have left, we'd like to talk a bit more about the rest of her tenure as chair of the black caucus. Representative Lee, thank you so much for staying with us.

Rep. LEE: Good to be with you again.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you to reflect a little bit about on your tenure and on what happened within the caucus over the course of this last session of Congress. And on the one hand it started out on such a high. I mean, you had unprecedented level of influence in the fact that you had, what, five committee chairs in the House who were also members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the first time that had happened in history. The president of the United States is a former member of the Congressional Black Caucus who was previously in the Senate.

So, on the one hand, this tremendous new level of visibility. And you're ending the session having lost control of the House to Republicans, a number of members of the caucus facing ethics violations. Congressman Charlie Rangel, one of the founding members of the caucus, just censured for ethics violations last week. So, when you look over the course of this last session, what do you think stands out for you?

Rep. LEE: What stands out for me is how the Recovery Act never would have included provisions for targeting communities of high unemployment had it not been for the Congressional Black Caucus. What stands out for me is that the health care reform bill never would have included provisions to close health disparities in minority communities had it not been for the Congressional Black Caucus.

What stands out for me is that we never would've had an energy bill pass the House with provisions to ensure that low income communities did not be the victims of higher energy costs. That never would've happened had it not been for the Congressional Black Caucus.

MARTIN: So, you leave feeling what? You leave feeling what?

Rep. LEE: I leave feeling very thankful. The black caucus is needed now more than ever. It continues to remain the conscience of the Congress. Its members are resilient. They fight for what is right. And I think history will show that this two years of the Congressional Black Caucus has been one of the most productive in history.

And, finally, before we let you go, and we appreciate your taking the time in these last really hectic days of the session, do you have some advice for your successor, Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri? He takes the leadership post in a very different environment. The Democrats are no longer in the majority, will no longer be in the majority come January. And there will be, for the first time in many years, a Republican, very likely to be at least one Republican member of the caucus. What's your advice to him?

Rep. LEE: Well, my advice is stay the course and remember that as African-Americans and as our history in this country has so demonstrated, we know how to fight the good fight. We know how to meet the challenges. And, in fact, we know what to do and what is the morally correct thing to do in terms of these tough issues that we have to deal with. I know that Congressman Cleaver, who is a minister also, is a great moral leader, a great ethical leader and will lead the caucus to continue to do what is right and what is in the best interest not only of the African-American and communities of color, but in the best interests of the country.

MARTIN: Representative Barbara Lee of Oakland is the outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She's a Democrat. And as you heard, Representative Emanuel Cleaver will take over that elected post come January. Congresswoman Lee, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rep. LEE: Thank you. Good to be with you.

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