Obama chides Democrats, calls tax deal unavoidable

“In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed,’’ President Obama said. “In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed,’’ President Obama said. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
By Matt Viser and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / December 8, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Seeking to stem a full-scale rebellion within his party, a frustrated President Obama said yesterday that he had no choice other than to negotiate a tax deal with Republicans, and he lashed out at “purists’’ in his own party who have castigated him for capitulating to GOP demands.

The day of verbal volleys turned the usual political balance of Washington on its head. Republicans who just weeks earlier had mocked Obama as a socialist lauded his effort at bipartisanship, while Democratic leaders expressed deep reservations about the president’s move and withheld their support.

By midafternoon, Obama called a press conference at which he compared the attacks on his tax deal to complaints by liberal Democrats earlier this year that he had dropped a public option from his health insurance plan.

He warned Democrats against “having a purist position and no victories for the American people.’’ To “feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are’’ means nothing if legislation goes nowhere, he said.

Obama, who has been accused by some of lacking passion, let fly with plenty of it as he sought to explain why he agreed to a deal that extended tax cuts for all Americans, even though he had long campaigned against giving the cuts to the wealthiest. He said that he had to deal with a Senate in which Republicans can block his proposed plan with a filibuster, and that he decided to agree to a deal because it extended unemployment benefits and other measures that he said help the middle class.

“I want to make sure the American people aren’t hurt because we’re having a political fight,’’ Obama said.

Democratic reaction ranged from tepid statements to outrage, leaving it unclear whether the president can gather enough support within his party to pass the deal before the tax cuts expire on Dec. 31.

Some Democrats threatened a filibuster, while others said they would demand changes in the deal before votes are taken.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, emerging from a caucus after Vice President Joe Biden visited to round up support, said there were wide-ranging concerns about the deal. A noncommittal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the compromise “a bridge too far.’’

“We will continue discussions with the president and our caucus in the days ahead,’’ Pelosi said.

At least two members of the Massachusetts delegation announced their opposition, while others expressed reservations. Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, said he opposed the plan, while Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, called it “a lousy deal.’’ Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said he was “inclined to vote against a deal that equates the needs of long-term unemployed workers with individuals who earn over $200,000.’’

Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and a potential key vote, left open the possibility of supporting the measure. “We have a huge amount here that will go to working people, that goes to average Americans,’’ Kerry said after emerging from the Democratic meeting, noting a reduction in certain payroll taxes. “The middle class is going to get tax cuts that we never contemplated that we could get.’’

Votes are likely to begin in the Senate later this week, and the House would follow late this week or early next week.

Senate Republicans were largely supportive of the tentative deal Obama struck. If all 42 Republicans support the plan, 18 Democrats would be needed to clear the filibuster-proof threshold.

“The vast majority of my members will be supporting it,’’ Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said.

“It’s an outstanding display of bipartisan cooperation, finally,’’ said Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican.

“Overall I think it’s a very good agreement,’’ said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Obama’s former presidential campaign rival. “I’m glad that it was made.’’

Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, was noncommittal. “He will review the compromise, and while the proposal may not be ideal, he wants to make sure that it is good for American families and a victory for taxpayers,’’ said Gail Gitcho, the spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Republican.

Obama on Monday night announced the tentative deal with congressional Republicans to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits and other tax changes.

The agreement would extend tax cuts at all income levels for the next two years, although most Democrats, including the president, had wanted the cuts to extend only to family incomes less than $250,000 a year. The plan would extend for 13 months the unemployment benefits paid to jobless workers that expired earlier this month. It would also extend a variety of other tax breaks and reduce the payroll tax by 2 percentage points, putting about $800 more into the pocket of a worker making $40,000 a year.

The two-year cost of the entire deal has not been announced but has been pegged by outside groups at around $900 billion, a figure that the White House has not disputed. Of that amount, about half — around $450 billion — would go to extend the Bush era tax cuts; of that amount, about $75 billion would pay to extend tax cuts for those making more than $250,000.

During the press conference, Obama defended pragmatism over liberal idealism, saying Republican intransigence over taxes forced him to embrace tax cuts for all categories of earners.

“It’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers — unless the hostage gets harmed,’’ he said. “Then, people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.’’

Obama compared the stance of some within his party to what happened during the health care negotiations, when some liberals were angry that the plan did not include a public option for insurance.

“So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years,’’ he said. “But because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow was a sign of weakness and compromise.’’

Obama said if that is the type of standard Democrats expect, “then let’s face it, we will never get anything done.’’

Democratic strategist Tad Devine said the tax cut deal could help reposition the president to win over independent swing voters who voted against the party in the midterm elections. Obama could help himself politically with that group if he looks like someone “who can do business with Republicans on economic issues,’’ Devine said.

“When a president is attacked by the base of his own party, he’s helping himself win the next election,’’ Devine said. “The electorate that showed up in 2010 is disastrous for the Democrats. The president has to do something about that and it’s not by creating more liberals.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at Mark Arsenault can be reached at