Compromises, compromises

Our view: Time may be running out for extension of Bush tax cuts but weak-kneed Democrats must first be willing to draw — and defend — a principled line

December 02, 2010

December has been billed as the month when Democrats and Republicans will finally get together to iron out a compromise over extending the Bush tax cuts. But recent exchanges of pleasantries aside, it appears only the White House is doing the compromising.

The GOP's "all or nothing" strategy is pretty clear. Republicans on Capitol Hill believe they have the upper hand and President Barack Obama will blink. Rather than allow tax cuts for the middle class to expire, he and congressional Democrats will eventually endorse extending them for everyone.

Democrats, still smarting from the historic shellacking in the mid-term election, don't want to be remembered in 2012 as the folks who raised taxes on everyone.

So whatever happened to that compromise that was allegedly in the works wherein taxes would be cut for those earning $250,000 or less permanently and for two years for higher earners? Wasn't that enough of a budget-buster?

Apparently not, and no amount of tea and cookies at the White House is going to achieve that couple of GOP votes Democrats need to avoid a Senate filibuster and pass that plan. Republican moderates (and even outgoing tea party victims like Utah's Robert F. Bennett) seem just as intractable as any on that side of the aisle. Obstinacy is working too well as a political strategy for any such reasonableness to intrude. With the Republicans' insistence that an extension of unemployment benefits be offset by other spending cuts but with no such concern for the deficit involved in tax cuts for the rich, intellectual consistency isn't much dampening the partisan parade either.

Enough is enough. There ought to be some limits to Democratic capitulation, particularly the kind that results in a $4 trillion boost to the federal deficit over the next decade, which extending the tax cuts for all would cause.

For starters, Democrats can't be enriching the yachting set while simultaneously doing nothing for the 2 million or so Americans whose unemployment benefits have expired. If one extension of benefits has to be "paid for" through budget cuts then so should the other.

Senate ratification of the New START treaty ought to be required as well. Without it, changes in Russia's nuclear arsenal can't be verified as the U.S. has no right to on-site inspections. That's not just what the White House is saying, it's what former secretaries of state for the last five presidents are endorsing, too.

And finally, the Democrats simply can't allow the tax cuts for high-earners to be made permanent. If they do, it makes the whole bipartisan debt-management effort a colossal waste of time no matter what the Bowles/Simpson commission votes on Friday.

Should tax rates be made higher for working families right now while the economy remains so fragile? Probably not. But that can't be used as an excuse to lock in reckless budget policies. As the debt commission's chairmen have noted, the hole is too big to be filled by budget cuts and economic growth alone. There will have to be higher taxes, too, and federal income tax rates on the rich that served the country so well during the record prosperity of the Clinton years are hardly economy killers.

So while Republicans are making their political calculations, they might find time to direct some thoughts toward the national interest as well. President Obama has given enough ground. It's time Democrats drew their own line in the sand.

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