- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2010

President Obama finds himself in a quest for Democratic votes on Capitol Hill as mounting liberal anger over his tax-cut deal with Republicans has him pressuring lawmakers from the outside with high-profile endorsements and deploying White House officials to cajole them from the inside.

The dilemma over the Bush-era tax cuts means Mr. Obama will not be able to rely on support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, both of whom have joined rank-and-file Democrats in expressing concern about the compromise the president struck earlier this week with the GOP.

The full-court press has involved a surprise Tuesday press conference by Mr. Obama, personal pleas to both Senate and House Democratic caucuses by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other officials, stepped-up television appearances by top aides and an onslaught of press releases from the Democratic National Committee touting prominent backers and local editorials in support of the measure.

The basic sell: While the temporary extension of tax cuts for wealthy Americans is a bitter pill to swallow, it’s worth it to ensure that middle-class Americans see their tax cuts extended, along with a series of tax breaks favored by Mr. Obama and unemployment-compensation benefits.

“It’s an imperfect agreement,” National Economic Council Director Lawrence H. Summers told reporters at a briefing Wednesday. But, he said, failure to approve it “would materially increase the risk the economy would stall out, and we would have a double-dip” recession.

Mr. Summers argued that taken together, extensions of middle-class tax breaks and jobless benefits and a payroll-tax holiday will boost gross domestic product and prompt financial firms to make upward adjustments to their economic forecasts.

The deal has sparked a serious backlash among liberal activists and lawmakers, and it faces an uncertain fate on Capitol Hill. Republicans seem generally inclined to support it, having won concessions on the high-end tax cuts as well as on the estate tax, but numerous Democrats stand opposed.

To assuage their concerns, Mr. Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, met with Democrats in both chambers this week. Not everyone was won over.

“I think the vice president is hearing what he expected to hear that there is a substantial amount of dissatisfaction with the deal that was cut,” Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said after Mr. Biden’s meeting with House Democrats on Wednesday.

Several members of the caucus said that of the dozen or so lawmakers who first spoke after the vice president’s half-hour pitch, none expressed support for the deal.

“A lot of members have put themselves on notice they’re voting against it,” Mr. Moran said.

The mood was at least partially similar over in the Senate, where Mr. Biden sought to woo his former colleagues on Tuesday.

“I am inclined to vote no, from what I saw yesterday, but things are in flux, things are moving, so let’s take a look and see what the final package is,” Sen. Tom Harkin said Wednesday. The Iowa Democrat added that he feels as though he and his colleagues have been left in the dark as the White House negotiated with the GOP.

“I have not yet seen what the administration has agreed to with the Republicans,” he said. “Republicans seem to know. The administration seems to know. But we don’t seem to know.”

Congressional Democrats are demanding changes to the package, including the provision to return the estate tax to 2009 levels at 35 percent with a $5 million exemption and borrowing money to pay for a 2 percentage point rollback in the Social Security payroll tax.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, who has come out in support of the deal, said that the cost of the change to the estate tax would cost $20 billion over the two-year period and that there “certainly” will be a push to change that part of the package.

“That is real money,” he said.

But White House officials said the deal they struck with the GOP proves the president is above politics and cares less about partisan gamesmanship than about the effect on the middle class if all the tax cuts were allowed to expire at the end of the year.

“The thing we shouldn’t do is play Russian roulette with people’s lives,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod said.

Mr. Axelrod — echoing arguments made by Mr. Obama himself at a press conference Tuesday — said the president is likewise uncomfortable with extending benefits for people with higher incomes, but that holding out for a perfect agreement is not worth the risk and, moreover, unlikely to happen once Republicans take control of the House in January.

“Should we have staged a kind of kabuki dance for a while longer in order to exact some political advantage that might risk having people’s taxes go up January 1st? I’d say the answer to that is no,” Mr. Axelrod said.

As part of a stepped-up lobbying campaign likely aimed at lawmakers and activists alike, the White House has been blasting reporters with a rapid-fire series of statements by big-city mayors and governors backing the deal, including Govs. Jim Douglas, Vermont Republican, and Mark Parkinson, Kansas Democrat.

For their part, Republicans similarly expressed reservations but appear generally more supportive.

“While I believe making all the current tax rates permanent is a better course, this agreement is a recognition that stopping these massive, job-killing tax hikes and enacting real pro-growth policies to get our economy moving again is in the best interest of the American people,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said Tuesday. “I hope congressional Democrats will now put away their partisanship and join us in taking this essential step toward strengthening our economy and creating the jobs that Americans so desperately need.”

Seth McLaughlin and Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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