Centrist Dems lying low on deficit negotiations to avoid 2014 backlash

Senate Democratic centrists, whom Grover Norquist describes as the “hostages” in the tax debate, are lying low and keeping quiet about competing proposals from President Obama and House GOP leaders.

These centrists have declined to endorse Obama’s opening offer to raise taxes by $1.6 trillion, twice the size of the tax increase most of them voted for in July. 

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They have also held their fire on House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) plan, released Monday, that would raise $800 billion in tax revenues and cut $1.2 trillion in spending, which is closer to the ratio of the Bowles-Simpson plan popular with many of them this Congress. 

“What I’m doing on all of those fiscal cliff-type issues is just waiting to see what package we put together,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D), who faces reelection in Republican-leaning Arkansas in 2014. 

Pryor said he wanted to see more detail in Boehner’s plan. 

“Just sort of general and vague statements about what he might support at some point — doesn’t really move the ball very far down the road,” Pryor said of Boehner’s plan. He said he also wanted to know more about Obama’s blueprint before passing judgment. 

Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, whose anti-tax pledge is a significant obstacle to a deficit-reduction deal, has rested his hopes on Democratic centrists facing reelection balking at a major tax increase. 

“Our hostages are the 20 Democrats up in ’14. We’ll send them either piece by piece or one at a time over to the White House to negotiate,” Norquist told The Hill in an interview earlier this year. 

Democrats running for reelection in swing- and Republican-leaning states know they will be pummeled by millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads from third-party groups for any votes they cast to raise taxes. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who faces voters in 2014, declined to endorse the substance of the plan Secretary Timothy Geithner circulated on Capitol Hill last week. 

“I don’t know if that ratio is going to end up being final,” he said of Obama’s call for a 2-to-1 ratio of tax increases to spending cuts. 

Sen. Mary Landrieu, another Democrat up for reelection in a red state, Louisiana, said Boehner’s offer “is better than no proposal.”

“I know that Speaker Boehner is really trying, so any proposal is better than no proposal,” she said. 

Senate Democrats face as difficult an electoral map in 2014 as they did in 2012. It took weeks for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to persuade Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) to take the job as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

Senate Democrats have to defend 20 seats, while Republicans have only 13 up for reelection. 

Obama’s negotiating position, however, has been helped by an emerging consensus among Democratic centrists that income tax rates on the wealthy must be increased in order to reach a deal. 

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said he thinks the rates for the top brackets will have to increase.

“I think so, but I’ll keep my powder dry. It’s between the president and Mr. Boehner,” he said. 

Johnson faces a tough race in 2014, likely against former Gov. Mike Rounds (R).

Sen. Mark Begich (D), who is running for reelection in Alaska, another red state, agreed that a final deal to avoid the fiscal cliff will have to raise income tax rates on the nation’s wealthiest families. 

Republicans have taken a hard-line stance against raising income tax rates, arguing it would slow job creation. 

Democratic centrists who are not running in 2014 have also been careful to stay out of the public spotlight.

When asked about Boehner’s plan, retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) offered a terse “No comment.” 

Sen. Jon Tester (D), who narrowly won reelection last month, said he had not seen Boehner’s proposal and wanted to “take a peek” before discussing it. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of the most vulnerable incumbents of the 2012 cycle, declined to render judgment on the president’s or Boehner’s position. 

“I’m being stubbornly vague because I want us to get a deal, and if you start drawing lines in the sand, it makes it that much harder to get a deal,” she said. 

But McCaskill, like her centrist colleagues, says Republicans must give ground on raising tax rates.

“I’m just glad we got two proposals,” she said. “Let’s just hope we can split the difference and they bend on rates. If they don’t bend on rates, we won’t get a deal, I don’t think.”