They may have “a good cop, bad cop” act going on, but House and Senate Democrats insist there is no fracturing in their unified determination not to cave again to the Republicans’ hard-line opposition to higher taxes for the rich.
As Congress appeared to move the nation a bit closer to the so-called fiscal cliff on Wednesday with House passage of a GOP tax plan and defeat of the Senate-passed Democratic alternative, Democrats from both chambers say they won’t blink.
But in this fight over what to do about the automatic tax increases set to take effect at the end of this year—as well as impending fights over huge, mandatory spending cuts—Democrats have at times seemed to be offering somewhat disjointed battle plans.
Last month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., prompted headlines when she warned that Democrats would let the country go over the fiscal cliff in January if Republicans continued to demand that the George W. Bush-era tax cuts be extended for the wealthiest Americans, not just for those making less than $250,000 as Democrats want.
She also meant that unless a compromise is reached, Democrats would let sequestration—the automatic spending cuts set in motion by the so-called super committee’s failure last year to agree on how to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years— kick in.
Murray seemed to be channeling the Republican strategy of 2011, when conservatives drove their leaders to warn that they would allow the country to default if more spending cuts weren’t part of any deal to raise the debt ceiling. But GOP leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded to Murray by suggesting that she and other Democrats appeared to be threatening to derail the already-sputtering economy.
In the weeks since, House Democrats have seemed to steer away from similar strong language. They have instead emphasized the possibility of reaching agreement with Republicans on some areas—sometimes claiming great enthusiasm at the prospect—even as they also emphasized they will not back down on the tax issues. And sooner rather than later, they say.
For instance, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that “there is a great deal of enthusiasm in our caucus about the fact that this is a way forward, it’s the path of fairness. But it’s also a path that avoids a good deal of the sequestration and to reduce the uncertainty.”
“It’s a good place for us to go to the table as we look for more cuts in investments but as we [also] try to stimulate growth,” Pelosi said, announcing that she and Democratic ranking members “of every one of our committees sent a letter to Speaker Boehner and the Republican Committee chairmen with a clear message: ‘We must begin bipartisan negotiations immediately to replace the sequester with a balanced deficit-reduction plan.’ ”
And on Wednesday, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters that he believed lawmakers from both parties need to work on a “comprehensive agreement on cuts, revenues, and constraints” and to try to strike a deal to avert the fiscal cliff looming at the end of the year.
Murray’s office said such House Democratic comments are not a departure from her remarks in substance.
“Democrats have been very clear that we are willing to compromise to get a balanced and bipartisan deal and that the only thing preventing that deal from coming together right now is Republicans’ absolute commitment to protecting the wealthiest Americans from paying a penny more in taxes,” said Murray spokesman Eli Zupnick.
House Democrats also insist there is no daylight between them and Senate Democrats—even if some of the language in their positioning may be different.
“I’ve never seen the House called the good cop,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., joked of the notion that his chamber is projecting a softer tone.
“There is no disconnect,” said House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “The point that Senator Murray’s making—one which I agree with and I know the leader [Pelosi] agrees with—is that we work very hard to provide middle-class tax relief and we do it now.”
However, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut said that while he does not believe House Democrats are at odds with their Senate colleagues, they may be a bit more driven to reach a compromise sooner.
“I respect Patty and her ability to say ‘Hey, you know, we’ll stand tough here, and we’re not going to blink,’ ” said Larson. But he added that members of the House, unlike senators, get elected in a [two-year] cycle. Because of that, he said, House members are, “I think, closer to the public.”
“From that standpoint, our members are hearing what the people are saying: ‘A pox on both of your houses, get the job done!’ ”
“So, our focus has been getting the job done,” said Larson.
This article appears in the August 2, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.