Week In Politics: Tax Cuts

Melissa Block speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times, about the tax cut package President Obama signed into law.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The deal is done. Late this afternoon, President Obama signed into law the tax cut deal he brokered with Republican leaders.

President BARACK OBAMA: We are here with some good news for the American people this holiday season. By a wide bipartisan margin, both houses of Congress have now passed a package of tax that will protect the middle class, that will grow our economy and will create jobs for the American people.

BLOCK: The package worth $858 billion overcame considerable opposition from Democrats in the House. It extends the Bush-era tax cuts across the board for another two years. And a payroll tax cut included in the agreement will make its way to Americans' paychecks come January.

We're going to talk now about taxes and the week in politics with our regular Friday political commentators: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Hey.

BLOCK: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi, David.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Hello.

BLOCK: We mentioned that this bill met resistance in the House both from Democrats who thought it caved to Republican demands, also from some Republicans who want those tax cuts to be made permanent. And let's listen to the man who will be the speaker of the House come January, John Boehner today explaining his yes vote last night.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): You know, there were some of our colleagues last night and others who didn't think that the agreement on the tax bill was a good one. But I've got to tell you, from where I stand, our first goal was to stop the big tax hike that was coming on January the 1st. Considering that the Democrats control the House, the Senate and the White House, I thought on balance, it was worthy of my vote, and I voted for it.

BLOCK: David Brooks, what do you make of the process that led up to this bill's passing? In the House it got just about equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans voting in favor.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I liked it. I mean it showed that if you give each party something they really want, they'll be willing to bend on some of the other stuff. And the other thing it showed was that the country loves this kind of thing. It had some opposition on the right and the left, but the polls showed extremely popular. It's changed the tone in Washington a bit.

And the interesting thing about the whole thing to me was the one part of the bill that's unpopular is the payroll tax deduction, which goes straight into people's wallets and that's because people really are concerned about Social Security and deficits. So it was striking to me that that part was unpopular, because people do care about making sure we have a fiscal, sustainable future.

BLOCK: E.J., the income tax cuts will expire in two years, 2012, which means we're going to be having this debate again in a presidential election year. Where do you think that leaves President Obama? Does it complicate things for him?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, you know, this is either when President Obama got his presidency restarted, he pumped up the economy, he showed that he was a leader, or it's when he split his party, alienated part of his base and it was striking that roll call was just split the Democrats right in two; and, also, added to a deficit that will be used to justify cutting programs he likes.

He argues - the president has argued that with the economy better, it will be easier to make the case that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy need to expire. But it was so hard for Democrats to get rid of them this time. Next time, the Republicans hold the House, they have smaller majorities in the Senate, I'm not so sanguine that it'll be that easy.

BLOCK: Can we move on to other business coming up in this lame-duck session? The Senate is expected to vote on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell tomorrow. They're also expected to vote before the Christmas break on ratifying the New START treaty. I'm curious to hear from both of you if you think, first, they have the votes to approve both of those measures. David Brooks, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, what do you think?

Mr. BROOKS: I just spoke to some of the sponsors and they're quite optimistic, actually. And I think all credit goes to Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, two people who get a lot of grief from their parties, but really behaved very professionally and very expertly, I thought.

To me one of the interesting things about this was the dog that didn't bark, which was conservative talk radio, a lot of the conservative blogs. This just wasn't on the radar screen. Maybe they didn't support it. But they weren't mobilized by it. And that suggests to me the movement in the country on this issue, which is pro - in the direction of tolerance of gays and lesbians, has switched even - it's in the conservative ranks too.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne?

Mr. DIONNE: I think that's right. I think there has been real movement on this question. And, actually, it's the first time in four years I've seen any liberal blog say anything nice about Joe Lieberman, because he has really fought for this thing. It's sort of have yourself a very lame-duck Christmas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: This is actually going to be a very productive lame-duck Congress. You will get, I think, Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And I think there's a very good chance this START treaty will be approved, which I think it should be.

It seems to me there are two big issues here. One is if it went down, you'd only strengthen Vladimir Putin, which is not in our interests. And it's a pretty good inspection regime. And at a time when we're worried about loose nukes and the like, it's important to be able to get inspectors in there.

BLOCK: There has been, though, David, some strong Republican opposition to this, notably from Senator Jon Kyl.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. And some of it is substantive. He thinks we're not focusing on modernizing our forces and modernizing our nuclear capacities. Some of it -I'm surprisingly vehement, I would say. Nonetheless, I guess I agree with E.J. on the substance. I do think what matters most is our relationship with Russia, not how many warheads we have aimed at each other and it really would be hurt if we didn't ratify this thing.

BLOCK: If you think back in review, the 111th Congress, I mean, will have some chances to do that before it's completely out of session, but what do you think when you praise the work that was done, David Brooks?

Mr. BROOKS: They blew it. I mean, the House Democrats, you know, they had a chance to build a working majority and they alienated the country by moving, I guess I would say too much in the direction of centralized government. And so the next Congress is going to look very, very different.

BLOCK: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: It was one of the most productive Congresses in history.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: I mean, we passed health care reform, we passed financial reform. They did the stimulus package, which kept us out of a mess. They passed credit card reform, student loan reform and it's an extraordinarily productive Congress. Of course it didn't have the political resolve that Democrats would've liked. It cost them seats. But they got a lot of stuff done.

Mr. BROOKS: That's not logically inconsistent, I would point out, what E.J. and I just said.

BLOCK: Yeah. OK. Let's move on. I want to talk about Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yesterday, the White House released a summary of its review of the strategy, saying gains against the Taliban remain fragile and reversible. Here's President Obama yesterday. He's saying the U.S. has made significant progress and that al-Qaida is hunkered down.

Pres. OBAMA: It will take time to ultimately defeat al-Qaida, and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking our country. But make no mistake, we are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization.

BLOCK: And E.J., I wonder if you can put this in the context of a poll that came out yesterday from The Washington Post and ABC saying 60 percent of Americans feel the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting, even though a majority also feel the war has contributed to long-term security here in the United States.

Mr. DIONNE: Americans are sick of war. We've been at war for 10 years and it's not clear exactly what we got out of the Iraq War. A lot of Americans, most Americans supported the war in Afghanistan, believed it was important in beating the Taliban and al-Qaida. I think where things are now is very peculiar, because a foreign diplomat, friendly to the U.S., I talked to today said, well, we're not quite doing counterinsurgency clear, build and hold. We're clearing and holding, but we've really kind of given up on building.

But we've done a lot of damage to al-Qaida. We've done a lot of damage to the Taliban. And that means something for our security. But I think in the coming year, the fight is going to be within the Democratic Party and President Obama, to support this commitment, will probably lean on Republicans to keep this policy going.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. I sense a real shift in his thinking, or his talking. He really did lay out a deadline of this coming summer. And in that statement we just heard, it's clear that it's now more like 2014 they'll begin to scale back. But we're going to be there for a while. And I think that's right. I don't think we can really judge how successful it is, at least in the near term.

BLOCK: And David Brooks, very briefly, a few thoughts on Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the envoy to Afghanistan, Pakistan, who died suddenly this week after suffering an aortic tear. What are your thoughts on his legacy?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, he spent a lot of time telling me how to do my job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: But what was unique about him, or distinct about him, his personal ambition and personal spirit were completely fused with public service. He only lit up when in the midst of public service and the more deeply he was involved in government, the more alive he was.

BLOCK: OK. Thanks to you both, have a great weekend.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution.

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