WASHINGTON – The struggle over tax cuts is seriously straining President Barack Obama’s relationship with House Democrats, who have backed him on key issues even when it cost them politically.
Expressing hurt and bewilderment, Democratic lawmakers say Obama ignored them at crucial negotiating moments, misled them about his intentions and made needless concessions to Republicans.
The president has responded that he acted honorably and drove the best bargain he could. But even his explanations offended some longtime allies. Aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed around news accounts of a Dec. 7 news conference in which Obama claimed that some liberals would feel “sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are” by refusing to compromise, even if an impasse hurt the working class.
“Hardly anybody in the Democratic caucus here feels that the president tried hard enough to deliver on his campaign promises,” said Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, one of dozens of House Democrats defeated in last month’s elections. Obama had House Democratic leaders “go through what turned out to be Potemkin meetings with his staff, when the real negotiations were being done elsewhere,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who has strongly supported Obama and who won re-election last month, told MSNBC the chief House representative “wasn’t even in the room, and we did feel left out” during the key tax-cut negotiations.
Hurt feelings can mend over time, of course, and it’s not clear how much political damage Obama will suffer because of disenchantment among House members. His allies note that House Democrats will be in the minority in the new Congress, and it’s essential for the president to negotiate with the newly ascendant Republicans to get things done.
Still, the estrangement is notable because House Democrats have been Obama’s most dependable allies in his first two years in office. They passed a politically risky energy bill to cap greenhouse gasses, only to see the Senate ignore it. When the Senate refused to make further changes to this year’s hard-fought health care overhaul bill, House Democrats swallowed their anger and pride, accepting big concessions to keep it alive.
Key liberal groups have attacked the tax plan, which would extend Bush-era tax cuts for two years for all Americans, poor and rich alike. It also would extend unemployment benefits and trim Social Security taxes for a year, steps most Democrats support. But the deal would tax large, multimillion-dollar inheritances at a rate lower than many had expected, and that infuriates many liberals.
Some of Obama’s longtime allies have lashed out. Illinois Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. — who publicly chastised his famous father for criticizing Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign — said of the tax deal, “If we recklessly cut taxes for the wealthiest 2 percent, then Obamanomics will look an awful lot like Reaganomics.”
The Congressional Black Caucus said its members “are overwhelmingly opposed to the president’s compromise with Republicans.”
Obama says GOP lawmakers held middle-class Americans hostage by vowing to tie up Congress — and thereby allowing everyone’s income tax rates to rise on Jan. 1 — unless he met their demands to extend tax cuts for the wealthy for another two years.
“I know there are some who would have preferred a protracted political fight, even if it had meant higher taxes for all Americans,” the president said last week. “I’m not here to play games with the American people or the health of our economy,” he added. “My job is to do whatever I can to get this economy moving.”
House Democrats are especially upset about a Dec. 6 White House meeting involving their party’s leaders, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, the administration’s chief tax negotiator. Participants said Pelosi and one of her lieutenants, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, knew the White House was nearing an agreement with Republicans, and they specifically objected to the proposed inheritance tax provisions.
Van Hollen says Obama and Biden indicated that no final deal had been cut. But shortly after the meeting ended, Obama announced the compromise reached with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
White House officials say some details were negotiated almost to the last minute. But accounts of the meeting angered many House Democrats, who voted two days later to reject the tax cut plan unless it is changed.
“We left that meeting with the White House indicating that they had not yet cut final details,” Van Hollen said in an interview. Referring to the estate tax provisions, he said, “Republicans are gloating because they got a windfall of $25 billion for the wealthiest estates.” That would be added to the deficit, he noted.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told the Associated Press, “We have been talking to the Democratic leadership since prior to the announcement and will continue to work closely with them to ensure that this important package is passed into law so the middle class doesn’t face a tax increase.”
Van Hollen says more negotiations will occur when the tax measure reaches the House, assuming the Senate approves Obama’s version this week. House Democrats “are determined to strip the most egregious provisions from the bill, especially the estate tax giveaway,” he vowed.