Narrower Tax Deal Floated as Lawmakers to Sit With Obama
By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JENNIFER STEINHAUER
Published: December 28, 2012
WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders prepared for what was looming as a make-or-break White House meeting on the fiscal crisis Friday afternoon as top aides said they were exploring a scaled-back proposal that would prevent tax increases on household income of $400,000 or below.
The potential compromise, which was in the early stages and far from a certainty, was emerging as the top four Congressional leaders — Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader; Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader; Speaker John A. Boehner; and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader — were set to meet with President Obama as a group for the first time in weeks to try to reach a resolution as Congress headed toward a rare New Year’s Eve session.
Congressional officials say staff-level talks between the White House and the Senate Republican leader are centering around a deal that would extend all the expiring Bush income tax cuts up to $400,000 in income. Some spending cuts would pay for a provision putting off a sudden cut in payments to medical providers treating Medicare patients. The deal would also prevent an expansion of the alternative minimum tax to keep it from hitting more of the middle class. It would extend a raft of already expired business tax cuts, like the research and development credit, and would renew tax cuts for the working poor and the middle class included in the 2009 stimulus law. The estate tax would stay at current levels.
It would not stop automatic spending cuts from hitting military and domestic programs beginning on Wednesday, nor would it raise the statutory borrowing limit, which will be reached on Monday. Congressional aides said those issues would be dealt with early next year in yet another showdown.
White House officials denied that any such offer was developing and said that the president was sticking with his insistence that household income only up to $250,000 would be protected from tax increases.
While neither side was confident of any agreement, some top lawmakers said there was still a chance of a breakthrough that could at least avoid the most far-reaching economic effects. “I am hopeful that there will be a deal that avoids the worst parts of the fiscal cliff; namely, taxes’ going up on middle-class people,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said Friday on the “Today” show on NBC. “I think there can be. And I think the odds are better than people think that they could be.”
Democrats from high-tax, high-wealth states have pressed the White House and their leaders to accept a threshold higher than the president’s $250,000, but they appear ready to accept anything that can pass.
“I have a very practical standard to apply: whatever threshold we need to avoid the fiscal cliff,” said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut.
Much of the legislative attention was focused on Mr. McConnell as Democrats pushed him to provide assurances that Republicans would not use procedural tactics to block any measure that the Senate might consider. House Republican leaders have already said they would be willing to consider whatever legislation the Senate could pass when the House convenes beginning Sunday afternoon. If Republicans chose to erect hurdles to any legislation, Congress might not have sufficient time to advance a measure before the deadline on Tuesday.
Mr. McConnell was well aware of the Democratic efforts to put the onus on him. “Make no mistake: the only reason Democrats have been trying to deflect attention onto me and my colleagues over the past few weeks is that they don’t have a plan of their own that could get bipartisan support,” he said on Thursday.
But he also said he was willing to review any proposal that would come from the White House and then “we’ll decide how best to proceed.”
“Hopefully there is still time for an agreement of some kind that saves the taxpayers from a wholly preventable economic crisis,” he added.
As it awaited a proposal on tax and spending issues, the Senate did make some progress on other legislation, sending the president a renewal of antiterrorism surveillance laws and advancing some relief for states and communities hit by Hurricane Sandy this year.