Campaign Season Revives Buffett Rule Debate

The general election campaign between President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney is heating up. In Florida Tuesday, Obama highlighted what Democrats consider a major vulnerability for Romney — the relatively low taxes he's paid on a multimillion dollar income.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Rick Santorum's decision to bow out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination was a clear turning point yesterday for Mitt Romney. The presumptive Republican nominee can now devote all his efforts to beating President Obama. But yesterday, it was the president who struck first. In Florida, Mr. Obama highlighted what Democrats consider a major vulnerability for Romney: the relatively low taxes he's paid on a multimillion-dollar income. As NPR's David Welna reports, it's all part of a campaign season revival of the Buffett Rule.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When President Obama addressed an adoring crowd of students yesterday at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, he asked them to imagine that somehow they had the incomes of millionaires. They would then be subject to the so-called Buffett Rule, if Congress were ever to pass it. As the president explained, it would make sure that millionaires like himself and his friend Warren Buffett, who suggested the rule, paid at least 30 percent of their annual income in taxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You're bringing in a million bucks or more a year, then what the rule says is you should pay the same percentage of your income in taxes as middle-class families do.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: You shouldn't get special tax breaks. You shouldn't be able to get special loopholes.

WELNA: Prosperity in the United States, the president pointedly added, has come from the bottom up, from a strong and growing middle-class, rather than trickling down from the wealthy few. He did not quite mention Mitt Romney, but he left no doubt this was a major point of disagreement between the two men.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: A lot of the folks who are peddling these same trickle-down theories, including members of Congress and some people who are running for a certain office right now who shall not be named...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: ...they're doubling down on these old-broken down theories.

WELNA: If the president seemed a tad reluctant to actually pronounce Romney's name, that was hardly the case with his hard-hitting reelection campaign manager, Jim Messina.

JIM MESSINA: By protecting special tax rates for Wall Street investors and opposing the Buffett Rule, Romney's plan looks out for people just like him.

WELNA: To underscore that point, Senate Democrats next week will force their GOP colleagues to vote on bringing up a bill to implement the Buffett Rule. Majority Whip Dick Durbin says that bill raises a larger question.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: And basically, it's going to be a question for the Senate answer for the American people. And the question is this: Should our tax code be fair?

WELNA: The Romney campaign put out a statement yesterday accusing Democrats of promoting what it called the Obama Rule, raising taxes so that government can grow. Romney advocates lower tax rates for everyone, including the very wealthy. Douglas Holtz-Eakin was a top economic advisor for the last GOP presidential nominee, John McCain. He calls the Buffett Rule a non-serious answer to what is not the biggest problem.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think at a time when so many Americans are out of work and when the growth records are dismal, growth ought to be the top priority in every policy discussion, not necessarily these narrow measures of fairness.

WELNA: Others says real deficit reduction would require a much higher minimum tax rate for the wealthy, as has been the case in the past. Lawrence Zelenak teaches tax law at Duke University.

LAWRENCE ZELENAK: We could clearly go a lot higher than 30 percent - I mean, at least 40 percent. But as a political matter, it may be pushing it to even talk about 30 percent.

WELNA: As a political matter, the Buffett Rule seems likely to remain a major campaign talking point this year for Democrats. Again, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.

MESSINA: That's what this Buffett Rule fight is about. In part, the campaign will be a debate, you know, on this tax fairness issue, and we're willing to have that debate.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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