WASHINGTON- For the first time in his presidency, President Obama sat down to negotiate major legislation with congressional Republicans, resulting in a rapid deal Monday that will extend the Bush-era tax rates as well as unemployment benefits another year.
Even though Democrats still control Congress, they could not scrape up 60 votes in the Senate to pass a tax package limited to income brackets under $250,000.
Facing fierce criticism from his Democratic base for the deal, the president called a surprise press conference at the White House Tuesday to defend the negotiations.
"There are some who would have preferred a protracted political fight. . . . I understand a desire for a fight," he said, adding that now was not the time to let current tax rates expire. "I'm not here to play games with the American people or the health of our economy."
When the proposed tax rates expire in two years, he vowed, "I will fight to end them." Obama supports a permanent extension of the Bush-era tax rates only for those making less than $250,000 a year.
The president displayed some of the most aggressive rhetoric and demeanor in his presidency-toward both sides of the political aisle. He referred to Republicans as "hostage takers" of the American people. The deal, Obama said, was to "get the American people in a safe place."
And when a reporter asked what message he had for his critics on the left, the president's voice rose and he spoke forcefully. He recalled complaints from the left about healthcare reform lacking a public option, saying a "purist position" means "no victories for the American people."
Obama added, "If that's the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let's face it, we'll never get anything done."
Speaking of getting things done, the deal still must pass Congress, and Democrats are rumbling against it. The White House dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to meet with Senate Democrats over lunch Tuesday. Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said flat-out that the deal would not pass as it currently stood. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the White House didn't consult with the Democratic leadership over the deal. But with Republicans on board, and many Democrats concerned about voting against increasing current tax rates, the measure is expected to pass before Congress leaves for Christmas.
A liberal blogger for The Washington Post, Ezra Klein, was one of the few on the left to see the deal in an optimistic light, writing, "We may see more get done in the next two years than many of us thought."
Besides extending tax rates, the deal would return the tax on estates over $5 million to 35 percent, a number Republicans were seeking, instead of the default 55 percent. Democrats had been pushing for a 45 percent estate tax. The deal also extends unemployment benefits for another year. Also included were payroll tax cuts and various tax credits for business investments. The agreement will block the alternative minimum tax for millions of families, too. With the deficit commission's report last week still fresh on Washington minds, fiscal hawks have objected to the additional hundreds of billions in burden the deal will place on the deficit.