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Will Taxes Be Sticking Point in Debate Over How to Tackle Federal Budget?

November 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama urged lawmakers to avoid a showdown over taxes, spending and debt, and Congress readied to begin negotiations on balancing the federal budget. Jeffrey Brown talks to Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., about whether compromise between Democrats and Republicans will come before the end of 2012.
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JEFFREY BROWN: “Let’s get to work,” that’s what President Obama urged Congress to join him in doing to avoid a showdown over taxes, spending and debt, the so-called fiscal cliff. But he and House Speaker John Boehner both insisted they’d hold firm on whether or not to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Here are excerpts from the president’s first comments on the subject since his victory Tuesday night. He spoke to a crowd of supporters in the East Room of the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I said on Tuesday night, the American people voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours.

And in that spirit, I have invited leaders of both parties to the White House next week, so we can start to build consensus around the challenges that we can only solve together.

Last year, I worked with Democrats and Republicans to cut a trillion dollars worth of spending that we just couldn’t afford. I intend to work with both parties to do more. And that includes making reforms that will bring down the cost of health care, so we can strengthen programs like Medicaid and Medicare for the long haul.

Now, already, I have put forward a detailed plan that allows us to make these investments while reducing our deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade.

I want to be clear. I’m not wedded to every detail of my plan. I’m open to compromise. I’m open to new ideas. I’m committed to solving our fiscal challenges.

But I refuse to accept any approach that isn’t balanced. I am not going to ask students and seniors and middle class families to pay down the entire deficit while people like me making over $250,000 aren’t asked to pay a dime more in taxes.

(APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: I’m not going to do that.

And I just want to point out, this was a central question during the election. It was debated over and over again. And on Tuesday night, we found out that the majority of Americans agree with my approach. And that includes Democrats, independents, and a lot of Republicans across the country, as well as independent economists and budget experts.

That’s how you reduce the deficit, with a balanced approach. So, our job now is to get a majority in Congress to reflect the will of the American people. And I believe we can get that majority.

I was encouraged to hear Speaker Boehner agree that tax revenue has to be part of this equation, so I look forward to hearing his ideas when I see him next week.

And let me make one final point that every American needs to hear. Right now, if Congress fails to come to an agreement on an overall deficit reduction package by the end of the year, everybody’s taxes will automatically go up on Jan. 1, everybody’s, including the 98 percent of Americans who make less than $250,000 a year.

That makes no sense. It would be bad for the economy and would hit families that are already struggling to make ends meet.

Now, fortunately, we shouldn’t need long negotiations or drama to solve that part of the problem. While there may be disagreement in Congress over whether or not to raise taxes on folks making over $250,000 a year, nobody, not Republicans, not Democrats, want taxes to go up for folks making under $250,000 a year.

So, let’s not wait. Even as we’re negotiating a broader deficit reduction package, let’s extend the middle class tax cuts right now. Let’s do that right now.

(APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: That one step — that one step would give millions of families, 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses the certainty they need going into the new year.

It would immediately take a huge chunk of the economic uncertainty off the table, and that will lead to new jobs and faster growth. Business will know that consumers, they’re not going to see a big tax increase. They’ll know that most small businesses won’t see a tax increase.

And so a lot of the uncertainty that you are reading about, that will be removed. In fact, the Senate has already passed a bill doing exactly this. So all we need is action from the House.

And I have got the pen ready to sign the bill right away. I’m ready to do it.

(APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: You know, the American people understand that we’re going to have differences and disagreements in the months to come. They get that.

But on Tuesday, they said loud and clear that they won’t tolerate dysfunction, they won’t tolerate politicians who view compromise as a dirty word, not when so many Americans are still out of work, not when so many families and small business owners are still struggling to pay the bills.

What the American people are looking for is cooperation. They’re looking for consensus. They’re looking for common sense. Most of all, they want action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Obama would veto any bill that extended tax cuts for families earning $250,000 a year or more.

Earlier in the day, House Speaker John Boehner staked out his position on the same subject.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: You know, on Wednesday, I outlined a responsible path forward to avert the fiscal cliff without raising tax rates.

And about 24 hours after I spoke, the Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that the most harmful consequences of the fiscal cliff come from increasing tax rates.

According to Ernst & Young, raising the top rates would destroy nearly 700,000 jobs in our country.

You know, the members of our majority understand how important it is to avert the fiscal cliff. It’s why the House took action earlier this year to replace the sequester with other types of cuts.

And it’s also why over the summer, we passed a bill to extend all of the current tax rates for one year so that we had time to overhaul our tax code.

And it’s why I outlined a responsible path forward where we can replace the spending cuts and extend the current rates, paving the way for entitlement reform, as well as tax reform, with lower rates.

Now, 2013 should be the year we begin to solve our debt through tax reform and entitlement reform, and I’m proposing that we avert the fiscal cliff together in a manner that ensures that 2013 is finally the year that our government comes to grips with the major problems that are facing us.

This will bring jobs home and result in a stronger, healthier economy. And a stronger, healthier economy means more Americans working and more revenues, which is what the president is seeking.

This framework can lead to common ground, and I hope the president will respond today in that same spirit.

As I said on Wednesday, this is an opportunity for the president to lead. This is his moment to engage the Congress and work towards a solution that can pass both chambers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two senators join us now to discuss where things stand, Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee.

And, Sen. Corker, start with you.

We heard in that first clip the president say that the vote on Tuesday showed that most Americans agree with his approach, which includes raising taxes on the wealthy.

So, is he right? What’s your reading of the election results?

SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.: Well, I don’t know. I’m not a good reader of election results.

But I do think there is a lot of common ground in the Senate on solving this problem. And I think that Republicans who want to solve this problem — and I think that’s the majority of those who serve in the Senate — are more than willing to look at revenues, as long as we have meaningful entitlement reform.

So I’m hopeful. I think we have an opportunity. I don’t know how the setting could be better than right now with things looming at year end. An election just occurred. I think now is the time for — act. And I want to be constructive in that. And I know Ben Cardin wants to be constructive also.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will come back to some specifics, but let me bring in Sen. Cardin, because we also heard from House Speaker Boehner today reminding people that Americans also re-elected the majority Republicans in the House.

So what did you hear in the election results?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN, D-Md.: Well, first, I want to congratulation Bob Corker on his victory. The two of us will be working in the United States Senate.

And I agree with what he said. I think we have got to come together. Clearly, the proposal needs to include revenue. The president made that clear. Speaker Boehner indicated that he’s open to revenues. It’s got to be legal.

What Democrats and Republicans said during this election is that we want to make sure that we protect the middle class. We want to make sure that we have a real plan to reduce the deficit. We want to make sure that we invest in job growth. And to do that, we have to have a fair system.

And, yes, the wealthy are going to have to pay more. We either eliminate these loopholes. I think the president is right on the rates over $250,000. But that’s an issue that we can sit down, work together. We have got to do it in a constructive manner and reach predictability and a real plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Senator Corker, where is the movement on revenues? Because you both talked about revenues, but we also heard Mr. Boehner talk about not raising rates. So is there some sort of compromise in the difference between the term rates and revenues?

BOB CORKER: I don’t think there is any question.

And actually there’s a lot of commonality on that issue in the Senate. The fact is that folks in the upper income bracket like me, we ought to eliminate loopholes and those kinds of things that are really spending in another name. So we can generate more revenues from the upper income by eliminating those tax expenditures, which really, again, is just spending in another name.

And I think that’s what…

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me. Can you give us an example of how — of one of those, two of those?

BOB CORKER: Oh, gosh, there are all kind of expenditures. There is a home mortgage deduction. There’s charitable contribution. There’s the health care exclusion.

And the best way to keep from getting into a political argument over which one is just to cap the amount that people in upper income brackets can take of any of those. Let them choose which they want to take.

But there’s been a lot of discussion in the Senate over this. And I think a lot of people have come together saying, hey, that’s a pro-growth way of generating revenues from upper income citizens, because what it means is those people who file their income taxes through LLC.s and Sub-S’s, at the business level, their rate is actually the same or lower.

But on the personal level, when they’re making those decisions about these other things I just mentioned, they make those decisions knowing that those loopholes are closed. So it would drive business, but it would also generate revenues, which would help solve the problem that Ben and I have been working on for the last couple of years.

But to make that happen, it has to be coupled with real entitlement reform. And I have said from day one it’s not the revenue issue that’s the problem.

It’s agreeing on the entitlement reform issue, which is so important if we’re going to create solvency for our country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that goes to you, Sen. Cardin, the entitlement side of things. Where do you see — specifically now, where do you see room for some kind of movement or compromise there?

BENJAMIN CARDIN: First, let me agree with Sen. Corker that it is not right for millionaires and billionaires to pay effective tax rates of 10 or 15 percent, when a laborer working 40 hours a week is paying at a 28 percent.

So I think we can find some common agreement to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share of taxes. We can close some of these loopholes. And I also think we need to take a look at rates.

On entitlement reform, we have already started down that path with the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.

We need to change the way we deliver health care in America. And in doing that, we reduce the cost of health care, we reduce the readmissions to hospitals, we do a better job on using technology, less tests.

We manage the more complicated medical interventions. We reduce hospital infection rates. There’s a lot of ways that you can reduce health care costs. By reducing health care costs, we reduce Medicare costs and Medicaid costs. That’s the way to do it.

And I think we have to enforce those types of delivery system reforms. And I think Democrats and Republicans are prepared to do that. I agree with Sen. Corker. We need to combine revenues with real savings in spending. And that means, yes, we have to have reductions in the growth rate of health care costs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Senator Corker, we are talking. You are both in the Senate chamber, but do you see these kinds of — the kind of things you’re talking about specifically on the revenue side, do you really feel that there is that potential for movement in the House?

Because, I mean, do you hear that in the language of Mr. Boehner and others today after the election?

BOB CORKER: I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do.

BOB CORKER: I really do.

Now, at the end of the day, you know, Ben and I serve in the Senate, and I have spent a year crafting a plan that goes into every detail of how I would propose to fix Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, highway trusts, all of those things.

But at the end of the day, the only two people that are going to make this happen before year-end, even though Ben and I may weigh in at some point — and I know we will and I know we are right now behind the scenes — but the only two people that can make this happen and have a result by year-end are the president and Speaker Boehner.

And I think Speaker Boehner did today, and he has over the course of the last several days, indicate that he’s open to real revenues, not just that from economic growth, but real revenues that are scoreable, as long as we have the kinds of entitlement reforms and other spending reductions to accompany that.

So I’m hopeful. I do think it is incumbent upon the president now to lay out a plan that does that. It’s time for him to get out in front of this. And I think the people are expecting him to do that. I know I’m expecting him to do that.

And I’m really hopeful that the two of them will come together with something that can pass the House, can pass the White House. And my sense is that kind of package can pass the Senate.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, Sen. Cardin, I have heard some scenarios from folks on the liberal side, if there is more resistance, the suggestion of no deal, of just sort of go over the cliff, of let all the tax cuts expire, let everyone’s taxes go up, and then everybody votes on bringing the middle class and lower-income tax cuts back down.

That would get to where the president wants, I guess. That’s one sort of — one scenario I have heard. What do you think of something like that?

BENJAMIN CARDIN: I think we need to act, the sooner the better.

What the president said is absolutely correct. We need predictability in our economy. We don’t want to go off the cliff. We want to come together.

And I tell you, I think that it is absolutely essential for Speaker Boehner to be a leader. He’s the speaker of the House. He has got to bring all the members of the House together.

He is going to have to show that he can bring his caucus and the Democrats together in the House to a proposal that cannot only pass the House, but can pass the Senate and be signed by the president.

We’re willing to sit down and work during the lame-duck session to move as far as we possibly can. I think the president is absolutely right. Let’s give some predictability to our tax code in the month of November and December.

Let’s not wait until 2013. We can get some of the work done right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So your sense is that Americans can feel a little better after this election that something might happen?

BENJAMIN CARDIN: Well, I agree with Sen. Corker. I think it’s really going to be up to the leadership of the speaker. I think also the president, I think also the Senate will be important here.

But we have to show that we can pass bills that can be signed into law and pass the Senate. Right now, I haven’t seen that. We haven’t seen it so far in this Congress from the speaker of the House. Hopefully, we will see it during the lame-duck session.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sen. Ben Cardin, Sen. Bob Corker, thanks, both, so much.

BOB CORKER: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all of what the president and the House speaker said today on our website.