Democrats rip Obama, look to alter tax cut deal

Several from Bay State call him bad bargainer

Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked after a Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill yesterday. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked after a Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill yesterday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/ Associated Press)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Democrats sought changes yesterday in the tax package negotiated by President Obama and Republican leaders as anger among liberals prompted several Massachusetts congressmen to lambaste the deal and question Obama’s bargaining abilities.

Representative Michael Capuano, the Somerville Democrat, accused Obama of “losing without a fight.’’ By day’s end, not a single House member from the Bay State pledged support for the deal, although several left open that possibility.

The proposal received a warmer reception among Senate Democrats yesterday, with John F. Kerry joining several colleagues in backing the plan. He said Obama struck the best deal he could.

“It’s a lot easier to deal in hypotheticals than it is to deal with the Senate as it is,’’ the Massachusetts Democrat said in one of a series of statements of support distributed by the White House. “The truth is, the president got a lot of things here we’ve been fighting for that we haven’t yet been able to win any other way.’’

Kerry’s Republican counterpart, Senator Scott Brown, has been noncommittal about the plan, which would extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans for two years while attempting to stimulate the economy now through a series of tax credits and a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax.

In a sign that momentum was building for the plan, Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, said that even though he would vote against the deal, it probably had enough votes to pass.

“You have overwhelming Republican support and enough Democrats to do it,’’ Frank said. “I’m afraid they do’’ have the votes.

The issue could come to the Senate floor as early as today, but Democrats were still seeking some changes, such as adding several billion dollars to extend renewable energy tax credits. Democrats have also opposed the proposed provision on the estate tax, contending that a rate of 35 percent is too low and the thresholds of protected assets — $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples — are too high.

“I’m working within the framework that was presented to us on the tax bill to see if we can get some changes,’’ Senate majority leader Harry Reid said yesterday.

A strong bloc of Senate Republicans is expected to back the plan, and Democrats emerged from a closed-door caucus suggesting they might go along. But it could depend on whether Democrats are able to tinker with the deal, something negotiators said won’t be permitted.

“It’s not going to be changed,’’ said Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who was a chief negotiator with the Obama administration.

Vice President Joe Biden, a key player in the negotiations, echoed that, reportedly suggesting to Democrats that it’s a take-it-or-leave-it compromise.

The Obama administration pressed Congress to pass the legislation — and quickly. Obama told them to “get this done,’’ while Biden tried to make the case during a tense, closed-door House Democratic caucus. White House advisers also warned Democrats that if they failed to pass the package, the country’s fragile economy would be at risk for a double-dip recession.

The economy, while slowly growing, is still vulnerable, Larry Summers, the head of the National Economic Council and one of the president’s top advisers, said at a press conference at the White House. “Failure to pass this [compromise] bill in the next couple weeks would significantly increase the risk of a double dip,’’ he said.

In response to the criticism, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, said that opponents should consider the potential results of refusing to compromise and having a protracted fight over the tax cuts.

“What is the endgame and what is the consequence of playing it? Do they have the sense of how that ends?’’ Axelrod said. Such a fight, he said, could have resulted in higher taxes on the middle class. “We shouldn’t play Russian roulette with people’s lives.’’

Capuano has been particularly critical of the deal.

“I’ve negotiated with people who are a lot tougher than [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell, I understand negotiations,’’ Capuano said, referencing his time as mayor of Somerville. “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I don’t need a lecture from the president of the United States on how to do negotiations.’’

He added, “I do know one thing: you never get anything unless you fight. And my analogy has been, I’m not going to bring President Obama with me to buy my next car. I’ll end up paying more, and it won’t have a radio in it.’’

The absence of support from members of Massachusetts’ House delegation was striking because they normally are vociferous advocates of the Obama administration.

“I strongly disagree, [but] I’m not outraged,’’ Frank said. “I understand the president has a somewhat different position. I think he made a, that it was a mistaken decision.’’

Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said he would vote against the plan, as did Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat.

“I just can’t understand the position of the president, I just can’t,’’ Lynch said yesterday in an interview. “It was a good fight to have, and we caved. We punted on third down.’’

Several other members in the delegation have been critical of the plan but have not yet hinted how they would vote.

Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, said he has “serious concerns about extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires for two more years,’’ but did not say whether he would vote against the plan. He has also been pushing for including renewable energy tax credits.

Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, said he was still reviewing the plan, but he criticized several aspects of it.

“I share a general disappointment of many that the president did not refute untenable economic claims earlier and engage earlier with the public in order to gain the necessary support to avoid this poor choice,’’ he said in a statement.

Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, has remained noncommittal, saying through a spokesman that she “is still considering the compromise package at this time.’’

Representative John Olver, an Amherst Democrat, and Representative William Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat, both said through staff members that there are both good and bad components of the compromise but that they had not yet developed a firm position.

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at