Democrats: We're not overreaching in debt negotiations with Republicans

Congressional Democrats say they're not afraid of overreaching with President Obama’s tax-and-spending offer to Republicans.

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Republicans ripped Obama’s recent proposal of $1.6 trillion in tax hikes combined with $400 billion in spending cuts as a joke, and GOP lawmakers have said the framework could make it harder for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to get his members to agree to a deal.

But Democrats say the Republican response is little more than faux outrage, and that the White House offer is simply how negotiations are conducted, especially given that Obama comfortably won reelection after campaigning for higher taxes on the wealthy.

And with just a month left until the economy would absorb more than $500 billion in spending cuts and tax increases, Democrats across the political spectrum say they don’t believe the White House offer hurts their leverage or makes it harder to get a deal.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for instance, called that premise “ridiculous,” and said that early offers have “no effect” on whether either side gets too dug in on cliff negotiations.

“What harm comes from him asking for more than he thinks he’s going to be able to get?” said Frank, who did not seek re-election this year.

In fact, some Democrats said that the Obama framework blunted a favorite Republican criticism in the current fiscal debate – that the White House was shying away from specific proposals, especially on the spending side.

And party leaders pressed ahead Friday as if they still believe momentum is on their side, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lobbying once more for House Republicans to schedule a vote to lock in tax rates for family income under $250,000 a year.

"Elections have consequences," Pelosi told reporters at a news conference.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) even went so far as to agree that the president’s proposal looked little different than a Democratic wish list.

But Hoyer also said that was wholly appropriate for an opening bid.

"I don't think it's a take-it-or-leave-it offer. I think it is, frankly, responsive to what the Republicans said they wanted, which is a specific offer," Hoyer added during his weekly press briefing in the Capitol. "That doesn't mean they have to like the offer. It does mean that they should put a very specific offer back on the table.”

But Republicans have chafed at the policy prescriptions from the administration, which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner offered to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell, according to aides, even laughed when Geithner laid out the administration offer on Thursday, and Boehner said Friday that negotiations are at a “stalemate.” Top Republicans have said that, while they are open to higher revenues, they cannot support allowing any current tax rates to rise.

In addition to the $1.6 trillion in revenue, the White House is also pushing for an additional $50 billion in stimulus spending and another year of the payroll tax cut or a close substitute, as part of what the administration casts as a $4 trillion package.


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"I think Geithner’s proposal yesterday or the administration’s proposal actually set us back,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who has said that he could accept higher tax rates if they were paired with substantive spending cuts. “Republicans are looking at that like, ‘obviously these guys aren’t serious.’”

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a close ally of Boehner, added that the president’s proposal validated House GOP critics who warned the speaker not to offer revenue, and said that Obama would be an unreliable negotiating partner.

“He proved them right yesterday,” Tiberi said on Friday. “The president proved critics of the speaker’s first offer right.”

Even Democrats have said that they’re not in love with all of the proposals in the White House framework, and that they could imagine that some in the caucus might be uncomfortable with the plan as a whole.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said that he thought a fiscal cliff deal should just take on the looming cuts and tax increases, which made him uncomfortable with including stimulus measures and entitlement cuts.

Several rural state Democrats have parted with the administration on raising the estate tax rate, preferring to extend the current parameters.

Democrats also took some political hits in 2009 and 2010, when they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and enacted measures like the stimulus package and the healthcare overhaul with zero to few GOP votes.

But with divided government around for at least another two years, Yarmuth and some fellow House Democrats, like Rep. Mike Quigley (Ill.), said they didn’t expect experienced negotiators like Boehner and McConnell to remain too insulted by the White House offer.

“If Mitch McConnell’s only response is to laugh and not to say, well, we think that certain things are unacceptable, we would counter with this – then that’s not a serious response,” Yarmuth said. “First of all, I don’t believe it because I’ve never seen Mitch McConnell laugh.”

And at the same time, there are increasing signs that the GOP is willing to throw out more details on the thorny issue of how to restrain entitlements, with McConnell telling The Wall Street Journal that Republicans would accept new revenues if the White House consented to changes like an increased eligibility age for Medicare and higher premiums for the wealthy.

That comes at the same time that some in GOP circles are all but admitting that Republicans are losing the messaging war when it comes to taxes.

“The president’s really good at this,” Tiberi said on Friday, the same day that Obama made a campaign-style appearance in Pennsylvania. “He’s just really good. He’s really good at going out there every day and talking about higher taxes on millionaires.”

For their part, Democrats say Republicans should have expected as much, after a string of polls – including exit surveys from November – said that voters would be willing to support higher taxes on the wealthy.

“I’m willing to take my chances any day of the week on the issue of, should we allow millionaires and billionaires to get a bigger tax cut than anybody else, having had 10 good years,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

--Mike Lillis and Russell Berman contributed

--This article was originally published at 6:00 a.m. and last updated at 12:20 p.m.