Hostages And 'Purists' Keep Tax Deal Divisive

This week the president made a deal with the Republicans on the Bush tax cuts. Then the House Democrats staged a full-fledged revolt and may end up refusing to bring the deal up for a vote in the lame-duck Congress. The president called Republicans "hostage-takers" and his fellow Democrats who wanted to keep fighting about the cuts "sanctimonious" and "purists." Host Liane Hansen reviews the tumultuous week with NPR Political Correspondent Mara Liasson.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

It was a whirlwind week in Washington. The president made a deal with the Republicans on the Bush tax cuts; the House Democrats staged a full-fledged revolt. They could end up refusing to bring the deal up for a vote in the lame-duck Congress. The president called Republicans hostage takers, and his fellow Democrats who wanted to keep fighting about the cuts, sanctimonious and purists.

The week ended with the surprise appearance in the White House briefing room of President Obama and former President Bill Clinton. It wasn't exactly a joint appearance, and Mr. Obama didn't stay very long.

President BARACK OBAMA: Here's what I'll say is I've been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour, so I'm going to take off. But...

Former President BILL CLINTON: I don't want to make her mad. Please go.

Mr. OBAMA: You're in good hands.

HANSEN: Mara Liasson is here to put us in good hands. She's NPR's national political correspondent. Mara, what's that about? I thought the Obama White House didn't want anything to do with the Clinton White House and what it did.

MARA LIASSON: Well, that may be true but now they find themselves in a remarkably similar position to 1994, and that's when Clinton lost the Congress and he figured out how to navigate divided government. So, President Obama called him in to talk. After they talked, they went into the briefing room, and after Obama left the room, President Clinton held forth.

As you could see, he said please go and sounded like he was pretty happy doing that. He made the kind of clear, simple case for the tax deal than only he can. You know, President Obama may be a master at the big inspirational set piece, kind of campaign rally appearance, but Bill Clinton is the master at putting economic arguments into terms that ordinary people can understand.

And he also laid out the strategy that it looks like President Obama is getting ready to follow, starting with this tax deal and heading into next year, and that is triangulate when necessary - that's standing above and apart from the extremes in both parties to make deals with the opposition, as he did here on taxes - but fighting them on other issues, like repealing the health care law or financial reform or the student loan reform. And that what's very similar to what President Clinton did.

HANSEN: Where is the tax bill in Congress right now?

LIASSON: Well, it's moving forward with a lot of bumps in the road. Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, filibustered the old-fashioned way last week. He stood on his feet in the Senate for eight hours. You also have this voice vote resolution in the House where Democrats say they won't bring the bill up in its current form. They want some changes, particularly to the estate tax, and they may amend the bill, although only about 50-odd Democrats have signed the letter so far saying they won't vote for it.

The majority of Republicans are expected to vote yes, but you do have some trouble on the right, where Senator Jim DeMint doesn't like it because the estate tax is still around and he may filibuster. So, there's a lot of disagreement about whether this was a good deal for the Democrats or the Republicans. Some Democrats, of course, think it's a terrible deal for them and the president.

But Charles Krauthammer, a very influential conservative columnist, say Republicans got the short end of the stick because this is a second stimulus bill. So, I guess we would just say welcome to the world of divided government.

HANSEN: How serious is the breach between the White House and Democrats in Congress, particularly in the House?

LIASSON: Well, right now it looks like a very bad marriage. One White House aide said to me we're saving the Democratic Party from itself. They're really convinced that if they'd had a protracted fight, which is what the House Democrats want, it would've not only harmed the economy but Democrats would have been blamed for everybody's taxes going up.

The Democrats in the House think the White House should have fought a lot harder. But it's not clear what they thought would have happened if the tax deal didn't pass.

HANSEN: The president talked to MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep and made news about tax reform. How does this fit into the debate about the Bush tax cuts?

LIASSON: Well, the president is searching for a way to finally begin to frame the economic argument on his terms. He hasn't been able to do that, and tax reform, which as the president has told Steve, is the idea of lowering income tax rates while you broaden the base by getting rid of a lot of those tax expenditures, tax breaks. It helps solve the deficit problem, brings in more revenue and it's a way that he could vault above this stale argument about the Bush tax cuts and have a debate about economic growth and competitiveness on his own terms.

But I do think when you look at everything that happened this week - the angst amongst Democrats, the passion the president expressed when he distanced himself from them, the talk about tax reform, the return of Bill Clinton, if only momentarily - you can really see that this is the beginning of a whole new chapter in Washington politics.

HANSEN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Liane.

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