By Russell Berman and Mike Lillis - 12/09/10 12:49 AM EST
Vice President Joe Biden told House Democrats on Wednesday that the tax agreement the White House struck with Republicans was essentially final, forcing the divided caucus to decide whether to press its fight for changes in the package.
"It’s up or down," Biden told the caucus in a closed-door meeting, according to Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).
"So far as the administration is concerned, it's take it or leave it," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), one of the most vocal critics of the tax deal, told The Hill after the meeting. "I would say [Biden] was pretty specific about that."
Biden did not address reporters as he left the briefing. "It was great," he said in response to a shouted question.
President Obama dispatched the vice president to his old Capitol stomping grounds for the second straight day to try to quiet a Democratic uproar over the compromise he negotiated over the expiring George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
House Democrats described an “honest” discussion in which Biden made the administration’s pitch and lawmakers, both supportive and opposed to the plan, aired their views. Whether the vice president changed many minds, however, was unclear, and Democratic leaders did not immediately telegraph their next move.
“There remain very serious reservations on the House side, and there’s still a serious question about whether this package can pass in the form it’s in now,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who had been the chief House Democratic negotiator on the tax talks before the White House cut its own deal with Republicans.
“Many members of the caucus are still very concerned — as am I,” added Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). “Right now, it's very unsettled in the caucus."
Van Hollen said a provision setting the estate tax at a level favored by the GOP remained the “most egregious” aspect of the plan, but he would not say whether the House would seek further changes. “We’re looking at all the options,” he said.
The Senate could bring up the tax bill in the next day or two, meaning House Democrats may have to decide quickly how to proceed. Van Hollen downplayed the suggestion that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would keep the legislation off the floor entirely. “My sense is that you will have a bill on the floor,” he said.
While Democrats praised Biden’s handling of their complaints, several said they did not hear a willingness to reopen the debate over the tax cuts.
"It's fair to say that he said, 'We've negotiated with the Republicans, but we're not going to negotiate with the Democrats," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said in paraphrasing the vice president.
DeFazio is circulating a petition to force the Democratic caucus to vote next Tuesday on whether the current package should be brought to the floor or altered first. He needed 50 signatures to force that vote; as of Wednesday night, he said he'd gathered 51.
His resolution would be non-binding, but would also send a symbolic message to both the White House and House leadership that a significant number of caucus members prefer to fight it out.
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) also joined the chorus of critics Wednesday night. The group, of which Obama was a member during his Senate tenure, is drafting a separate proposal to compete with the White House-GOP deal. The CBC effort is being led by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
"We understand there are tough choices that will need to be made next year and are extremely concerned that the cuts that could be made should this package pass will disproportionately hurt the poor and low-income communities," CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
Lee said she told Biden at the meeting that "an overwhelming majority" of Black Caucus members opposed the Obama tax plan, specifically the estate tax provision and the extension of income tax cuts for the wealthy.