In Senate debate, Kaine says he'd be open to minimum tax level

McLEAN, Va. — Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine said on Thursday that he'd be "open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone," a contrast with his normal position on taxation.

Kaine, debating Republican rival George Allen in Northern Virginia, was asked by debate moderator David Gregory whether he believed that every Virginia citizen "should have to pay something in federal income tax." The question was tied to Mitt Romney's recent comments about the 47 percent of people who don't pay federal income taxes.

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The surprising exchange became the focus of post-debate questions of him and Allen, indicating a major distraction for Kaine in a debate marked by in-depth discussions of how each candidate would handle the incoming sequestration cuts to defense and federal spending. Reports indicate the cuts, if they go into effect, could cost Virginia 200,000 jobs.

Kaine began by pointing out that "everyone pays taxes," before being interrupted by Gregory, who pointed out that he'd asked specifically about federal income taxes.

"I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone, but I do insist many of the 47 percent that Gov. Romney is going after pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than he does," Kaine, the former governor of the state, responded.

After the debate, Kaine sought to clarify his remarks by arguing that he was saying he didn't want to take any proposals off the table, not that he supported tax increases on low-income earners — a view expressed more often by conservative Republicans like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) than any Democrats.

"David asked me a question which is, would I be open to a discussion about something broader like that, and I said sure, I'd be open to it. It shouldn't be news that somebody wants to go into the Senate that is willing to start with a position of openness and a dialogue," he told The Hill before pointing to his own record as evidence that he didn't support raising taxes on low-income earners.

"I've got a track record — when I was governor we raised the [tax] thresholds and took tens of thousands of Virginians, low-income Virginians off the tax rolls. And that was the right thing to do under those circumstances, but we can't start with non-negotiables ... you've got to start with an openness and not non-negotiables."

Kaine knocked Allen for refusing to be open to any new government revenues in order to balance government spending. When asked what his personal views were on increasing taxes on low-income workers, he indicated he hadn't fully analyzed it but that it wouldn't be his preferred approach.

"I had a preferred approach that I discussed out there, let's deal with [sequestration] in a straightforward way first ... and we need a comprehensive review of the tax code. I haven't yet grappled with the notion of do we make people pay tax at this or that level, but look, we're going to have to do a comprehensive review of the tax code. And the question posed was basically that, would you be open to this or that discussion. You cannot go in to a body like the Senate where we need to solve problems and have a list of non-negotiables or Grover Norquist pledges before you walk in," said, mentioning the president of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform.

Allen's campaign was also quick to blast out Kaine's comments, with the accompanying video.

During the debate, Allen, a former senator who's running for his old seat, said Kaine's comments showed his first instinct was to raise taxes, a position he repeated to reporters afterward.

"It's typical of Tim Kaine — his record is always one of wanting to raise taxes," he said. "When he was governor, he wanted to raise taxes on those making as low as $17,000 a year. He wanted to raise taxes on buying used cars."

The debate was held in a wealthy part of Northern Virginia, a fast-growing region filled with independent voters. The audience of the debate, sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, was made up of a number of top regional brass including heads large companies based in the area.

Kaine and Allen are locked in a tight race that could determine which party controls the Senate. Two recent polls show Kaine opening up a lead outside the margin of error, the first time in the campaign that has occurred, though both candidates said afterwards they expect a tight race.

The Northern Virginia region could prove especially crucial in the campaign, as both candidates indicated in their opening statements by pointing to specific projects they'd worked with those on the room to accomplish while they were in the governor's mansion.

During the debate Kaine repeatedly talked about avoiding sequestration by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on earners making more than $500,000, a position he's long held, as well as by ending subsidies to the five largest oil companies and allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower payments on drugs for Medicare, saying that, combined, those would cover three-quarters of the cost of the planned sequestration.

Allen did not present any details of a plan of his own but pointed to a May bill passed by House Republicans that he says would avoid the defense cuts from sequestration. He criticized Kaine's plan by saying it hadn't been reviewed by anyone to see if it would cost jobs, but declined to get into detail about what his own plan would be. He accused Kaine of "endangering hundreds of thousands of jobs" and of using those in the military as "as a political bargaining chip" to raise taxes as part of a debt deal.

Kaine fired back by accusing Allen of name-calling, a charge he repeated throughout the debate. He repeatedly emphasized that Washington needed more bipartisanship, and argued that he was much better suited to provide it.

Allen also sought to distance himself from Romney's comments about those who don't pay income taxes, arguing that his push for welfare reform as governor showed he cared about the poor. "The best social program of all is a job," he said. When Gregory asked him specifically if he agreed with Romney's statement that those who are on those programs "see themselves as victims," he quickly disagreed.

"No," he said. "I have my own point of view."

— This story was updated at 2:51 p.m.

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