White House economic advisers said President Obama opposes taxing employees' health care benefits, but when pressed, they did not rule out that possibility despite Mr. Obama's strong criticism of such a proposal during his presidential campaign.
Neither Christina Romer, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, nor Lawrence H. Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council, ruled out a plan to tax employee health care benefits to help pay for the president's overhaul of the system. They said Mr. Obama is open to all ideas on his health care plan, so long as they fall within the principles outlined in his budget.
"He is still opposed to it. He certainly was very critical and very skeptical of it. It is certainly not in our proposal. And we have proposed other ways to deal with health care and to fund it. And so no, it is not something that he supports," Ms. Romer said.
But when pressured by NBC's "Meet the Press" host David Gregory to say either that the president would not consider it or that such a proposal was off the table, she declined and would only reiterate Mr. Obama's "skepticism from the campaign."
"I'm not going to say one way or the other that" anything is off the table, she said.
Mr. Summers said such a tax wasn't part of Mr. Obama's principles but left open the possibility of such a move from Congress, where Democrats control both chambers.
"Those are the president's principles. He's put forth his proposal. There will be - different things will come out of the Congress, but the president has put forth his proposal and his principles," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Like Ms. Romer, though, he did not directly answer an invitation to take taxes on health care benefits off the table.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama took a much harsher tack, running a spate of ads denouncing Republican opponent John McCain's health care plan on precisely those grounds - that it was partially financed by taxes from counting the value of medical insurance as taxable income. He called the McCain proposal a "multitrillion-dollar tax hike."
When asked about a report in Sunday's New York Times that the president was considering such a move, Austan Goolsbee, also of the Council of Economic Advisers, said, "The president has laid out a series of clear principles on the health plan that we will do whatever it takes to get affordable quality coverage to all Americans."
"There are some people in Congress who are pushing this, but I know that's not the president's idea," Mr. Goolsbee said on "Fox News Sunday," later adding, "If these ideas can fit in with those principles, then we'll consider them."
He denied that his words constituted "leaving the door open."
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