Dems’ fury threatens tax cut deal

House and Senate Democrats of all stripes reacted with fury Tuesday to President Obama’s tax-cut deal with Republicans, threatening the package’s passage through Congress.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accused the president of abandoning a bipartisan effort in favor of negotiating solely with the GOP. 

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“There came a point where clearly they decided to cut a deal with the Republicans,” Van Hollen, the lead House Democratic negotiator in the bipartisan group created to forge a deal following a White House meeting last week, told The Hill.

Van Hollen, speaking after a meeting of Democratic leaders in the Capitol, said it had become clear following last week’s House vote on extending only the tax cuts for the middle class that further talks by the group would bear no fruit.

As Democratic leaders met with Vice President Joe Biden over the weekend at the White House, administration conversations with Senate Republicans were “obviously” ongoing, Van Hollen said.

Asked Tuesday if House Democrats were adequately included in the tax-cut negotiations, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said: “I don’t think House Democrats think so.”

He also said Obama failed to convince Democratic leaders to support the deal during a White House meeting on Tuesday. “There was a discussion. It took some time, but there was no agreement reached,” he said.

 Tensions ran high at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue one day after the deal was announced.

In the House, Democratic leaders prepared for an evening meeting of their caucus where the tax deal was to be discussed, while in the Senate, Democratic lawmakers were forced to wade through a crush of reporters choking the Ohio Clock corridor to make it to a lunchtime caucus meeting where Biden offered a point-by-point description of the agreement.

Obama called a surprise press conference after the backlash, but showed more anger with criticism from his party than interest in making changes to the deal.

Democratic senators seemed exasperated at times as they had to answer a barrage of questions about the deal before they had time to review its details on paper. But what Democrats read in media reports was enough to spark major disappointment.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) faulted the deal for extending tax cuts for families with more than $1 million in income at a cost of $46 billion. She said it verged on “moral corruptness.”

“If I end up voting for this package, it will not be silently, it will be being dragged to that position having firmly established that I disagree strongly with some provisions and can’t imagine this president leading the country in that direction,” Landrieu said.

 Landrieu’s strong reaction is troubling for Obama because she is one of the most centrist members of the Democratic Conference. She voted for the package of income tax cuts that passed the Senate in 2001 under President George W. Bush.

 Liberals also slammed the deal.

 “I still don’t think it’s in the best interest of our country, I really don’t,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “I just don’t think we fought hard enough. I disagree with the president. He had a press conference and called it a political fight. It’s not a political fight, it’s a fight about what our country is about.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vowed on Tuesday night to filibuster what he called a “very bad agreement,” while Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said: “I think a ransom was paid and it was a very high price.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also criticized the deal, saying in a Twitter post that it would add to the deficit and help the rich without creating jobs. The GOP provisions “help only wealthiest 3%,” she stated.

The opposition from his own party could force Obama to rely on a large bloc of Republican votes to secure the deal’s approval, or even to change the deal to win support from Democrats.

Senate Democrats are set to meet again Wednesday to decide their next steps. While Hoyer has said the House would like to see the Senate act first, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said no decisions had been made.

Still, Reid raised doubts that Senate Democrats would sign off on the deal as it now stands.

“No, I think we’re going to have to do some more work on it,” he told reporters after meeting with his conference Tuesday afternoon.

 Reid cited his colleagues’ concerns over the decision to set the estate tax at 35 percent for inheritances over $5 million for the next two years, something that also earned criticism from the House. Many Democrats want a lower threshold for exempting estates from taxes.

But tinkering with the estate tax and other provisions could jeopardize GOP support. Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, said he was concerned about tax increases in the package, pointing to the estate tax, which has been phased out this year.

 Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) predicted that most Republican senators will support the pending agreement unless there are major changes.

“I’m very hopeful and optimistic that a large majority of members of the Republican Conference will find this a proposal worth supporting, and I’m hopeful that the Democratic leaders will be able to convince their members as well,” he told reporters.

Some Democrats questioned whether the administration forced any real concessions from Republicans other than a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits not offset by spending cuts. Others didn’t think Republicans would have put up much of a fight against earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit provisions touted by administration officials.

If lawmakers were upset, so was Obama. He showed flashes of irritation during Tuesday’s press conference, which he used to push back against growing Democratic criticism.

Separately, the White House apparatus worked hard to sell the deal. Gene Sperling, counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, told lawmakers Tuesday that the package would increase the gross domestic product by as much as 1.4 percent, according to one senator who heard his presentation at Tuesday’s lunch meeting.

Russell Berman and Sam Youngman contributed to this report.