Some Republicans Conflicted Over Tax Cut Extension
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
The daughter of blues legend B.B. King is stepping out in front of the mic. We'll hear from Claudette King later in the program.
But first, to politics, where many Democrats are crying the blues, as well as some Republicans. We spoke yesterday about those Democrats who are furious about the compromise deal on the Bush-era tax cuts that was worked out by President Obama and congressional Republicans. That deal seemed in some jeopardy yesterday. But there's something of a revolt brewing with Republicans, as well.
South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favorite, is one of those opposing his own leadership. Here's what he had to say.
Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): Most of us who ran in this last election said we were not going to vote for anything that increased the deficit. This does. It raises taxes. It raises the death tax. I don't think we need to negotiate that aspect of this thing away. I don't think we need to, you know, extend unemployment any further without paying for it.
MARTIN: Joining us to talk about the revolt brewing over the tax deal and other issues facing the lame duck Congress are Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Ron Christie. He's a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. Now he's a Republican strategist and an author.
Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Republican Strategist): Nice to see you both today.
Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Journalist, Atlanta Journal Constitution): Good to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: The news so far has been so much on the Democratic side. So, Ron, I'm going to start with you. The Democrats are angry at President Obama because they say that, you know, he gave up too much, he caved in too soon. And they feel that he basically just sort of violated some of their core principles. What about on the Republican side? Only yesterday are we seeing some Republicans start to raise concerns about the fact that this deal could add some $900 billion to the national debt over two years. Is that a broad concern within the caucus, or no?
Mr. CHRISTIE: I think it is a broad concern in the caucus. I used to work for John Kasich, who was the former House Budget Committee chairman. And one of the things that we were successful in working with President Clinton was balancing the budget. And that took compromise on both sides of the aisle. And I understand where Senator DeMint's coming from, because America right now is in a very significant fiscal and financial hole that we need to crawl out of, and it's going to take compromise by both sides.
And unfortunately, I think that there are a lot on the Republican side that are opposed to this deal that think, oh, we could've gotten more. Well, now, we need to look at what can the country do, and what can the country do to move forward together? So I think it's a good deal. And the president, unfortunately, is being criticized for it, but it's a step in the right direction.
MARTIN: Why is it a step in the right direction if it adds that much to the deficit? I'm talking about from the conservative point of view, or from the budget-balancing perspective.
Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, it's a step in the right direction because you are not going to have an increase in the marginal tax rates. And we've seen for the three tax cuts with President Kennedy in the '60s, Reagan in '81 and Bush in 2001 and 2003, that if you reduce marginal tax rates, that will increase revenue to the Treasury. We need more revenue coming in from Americans. We need to stimulate the economy. That's one way to do it.
MARTIN: Cynthia, is this a step in the right direction, or so not, from your perspective?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TUCKER: Well, there were some inherent contradictions in what Ron just said. He mentioned balancing the budget during the Clinton years. That was the last time that the country had a balanced budget. How did that come about? A combination of spending cuts and tax increases. The deficit began to rise. The nation began to swim in a sea of red ink once again after President Bush cut taxes twice, mostly to benefit the rich, and went to war without paying for those. So there's a contradiction between this idea that you can cut taxes and balance the budget.
MARTIN: I'm interested, Cynthia, what the real depth of the Democratic opposition to this is. I mean, the initial reaction was quite angry. People said it was a violation of sort of core principles to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Although, the exchange for that is a long-term extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Many people were going to lose their benefits entirely as a result of last week. In addition to that, payroll tax cuts for everybody who works.
And a lot of people on the center-left have been saying: You've got to get money into the hands of Americans with the lowest incomes because you are sure that they will spend it. On the other side, they say wealthier people, when they get a tax cut, save it or invest it. So it doesn't really have the stimulative effect.
Ms. TUCKER: Well, that's the benefits that you outlined, Michel, are the very reasons that this deal is going to pass. This is the very essence of a compromise. There's something in here for everybody to hate. There's something in here for anybody to like.
MARTIN: So you think it's going to pass at the end of the day?
Ms. TUCKER: It is absolutely going to pass. Now, is it true that the president campaigned on a pledge to roll back the tax cuts for the richest Americans? Yes, he did. Many Democrats in the House and in the Senate are furious that the president is now, it seems, flip-flopping on that pledge. But the president outlined all his reasons. He said he didn't have any choice, that it was all or nothing as far as the GOP was concerned, and at least he managed to get some benefits out of it for working Americans. And the unemployment benefits extension is extremely important.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the news of the week, particularly on the political side, with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Ron Christie, a Republican strategist and author.
Ron Christie, very briefly, you think this compromise is going to pass, despite the fact that there's a lot of sturm und drang right now.
Mr. CHRISTIE: It'll pass. It'll pass. I think the Democrats were very cathartic last night. Vice President Biden came up to the Hill and really took an earful from the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate. But I think it will pass at the end of the day. And one thing I would say to Cynthia is that it's interesting when you look at the fiscal hole that we're in now, the reason that when President Clinton was in office that we had a budget surplus is that we had Republicans in Congress.
If you look at the last two-and-a-half, well, two years, President Obama's added $2.7 trillion to the deficit. And since the Democrats have been in control of Congress, they've added nearly $4 trillion. So I think divided government is good. And that's why I said and that's why I believe that this is a good first step. I think having divided government, having a Republican check on the Democrat's power in Congress and in the White House will slowly start to turn it around, because you have to address the fundamental problem, which is spending. Spending has gotten us into this fiscal hole. Putting a break on spending will help get us out of it.
MARTIN: Cynthia's about to reach across the table and - so I'll just throw my body in the middle and say I think she would also argue that the spending is in part because there are two wars are being fought that, you know...
Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, and then of course I'd counter and say that al-Qaida decided to attack the United States (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Well, yeah, but that's - but the reality is it has to be - you can argue that - but the point is it isn't just the last two years that have led to the deficit position we're in now. I think that's part of it.
Mr. CHRISTIE: True. But the point of the matter is that President Obama has added more to the deficit in the last two years than President Bush added over eight years. And so when you hear Democrats say, oh, the Republicans got us into this, President Obama's added more to the deficit in two years than President Bush did in eight.
Ms. TUCKER: Not true.
MARTIN: Well, one more question.
Mr. CHRISTIE: Of course it's true.
MARTIN: Not true. Of course it's true. So, there you have it - divided government.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And so, one more thing on this whole question of bipartisanship, I just want to play a short clip from President Obama in his Tuesday afternoon press conference when he was being questioned about why he brokered this compromise. Here it is.
President BARACK OBAMA: I've said before that I felt that the middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts. I think it's tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.
MARTIN: You know, in essence, the president was a little bit saying, bring it on. I'm wondering, Ron Christie, is this - was this - how was that comment perceived? Is it more blowing off steam or just - what? How is this being perceived...
Mr. CHRISTIE: He's angry.
MARTIN: ...in this period of compromise that is now being argued is important?
Mr. CHRISTIE: I think that that was a very critical mistake. The president, when he was campaigning, said that Republicans should be at the back of the car and that Democrats needed to drive the car. And in this particular case, he's talking about hostage taking? For goodness sakes, he couldn't get 53 votes in the United States Senate. He couldn't get a majority when he has a majority in the House of Representatives to pass the legislation that he wanted.
And so he wants to blame it and lay it at the feet of the Republicans. I understand his desire to fulfill a campaign promise, because that's what presidents do - they campaign, they get elected. But to suggest that Republicans are hostage takers in this climate with this country being in two wars, I thought was over-the-top partisan rhetoric that needs to be stopped.
I didn't agree with Mitch McConnell when he said that the Republicans, our number one job is to defeat the president. I thought John Boehner had the right tone. With one out of 10 Americans out of work, we as Republicans shouldn't be taking victory laps and we should be a lot more conciliatory - and so should President Obama.
MARTIN: You know, I know, as you just mentioned, when you've got one out of 10 Americans out of work, and in other communities, many more than that and the whole question of the president's fortunes doesn't perhaps seem as important as other things. But I would like to ask how, then, going into this next Congress, what position does this put President Obama in? Does it put it in a strong position in the sense that he's shown a willingness and an ability to make a deal across party lines? Or does it show, you know, weakness in the sense that his own caucus is furious with him?
So, Ron, I gave you the first words, I'm going to give Cynthia the last words, so why don't you go first?
Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think the president's in a very difficult political situation, because a lot of the people who were defeated in this past November election were the moderate Blue Dog Democrats. And I think that a lot of the Democrats that remain in Congress are from safer, more liberal districts. And those members are, frankly, not going to want the president to cut a deal.
But I think President Obama is in a unique position. I mean he can pull a Clinton, so to speak, in 1995. I think that he can find ways to work with Republicans, to put us back in a fiscal reality and a path towards fiscal responsibility if he chooses to embrace it, and I think that he will.
Ms. TUCKER: Well, if you recall that press conference, the president didn't just chide the GOP as hostage takers, he also lashed out at liberals in the Democratic caucus. He chided them for being unrealistic about governing, about what compromise is like, for being sanctimonious, trying to keep a purist position.
So I think the way the president is trying to position himself, as the adult in the room , the post-partisan grown up who understands that we need to compromise in order to get some things done for the American people. And it will be interesting to watch and see how that plays out for him over the next year.
MARTIN: And what about this talk of a primary challenge? Just talk?
Ms. TUCKER: Just talk. Just talk. I don't see - Hillary Clinton could only challenge him from the right, not from the left. She is not more liberal than the president. And I don't see anybody on the left who can mount a legitimate challenge to the president.
MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Ron Christie, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a Republican strategist and author. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. CHRISTIE: Pleasure.
Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.
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