Published January 23, 2009
During his private meeting with congressional Democrats and Republicans on Friday, President Obama ended a philosophical debate over tax policy with the simple declaration that his opinion prevailed because "I won."
Democrats called it a light-hearted moment that drew laughs around the table. Republicans said there was laughter but couldn't recall if any of it came from their ranks.
The president also left Republicans with the impression he was leaving the door open to a pre-emptive repeal of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy by declaring, according to several participants, that it was "too early to have those discussions on revenues and budgeting."
Democrats and White House officials said the president did nothing of the kind.
Obama invoked conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh in a discussion about the danger of allowing partisan differences block progress on the stimulus bill, which currently costs $825 billion.
Obama explained that lawmakers were closer together than the public realized on the stimulus package but warned of pitfalls if Congress and the White House don't work together. Again, according to participants in the meeting, Obama said this about rising above typical partisan differences: "We're all political animals, we've all got political bases," the president is reported to have said. "If we don't get this done we (the Democrats) could lose seats and I could lose re-election. But we can't let people like Rush Limbaugh stall this. That's how things don't get done in this town."
Democrats said the president was trying to call attention to the need for Republicans and Democrats to concentrate more on areas of agreement than differences. In the main, Republicans agree with Obama that the stimulus package must contain hundreds of billions in deficit-financed spending and have succeeded in adding a few business-friendly tax cuts to the package.
In the biggest concession of all, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the package should pass by mid-February, the Democrats' line-in-the-sand legislative deadline. By refusing to threaten a filibuster to block the bill, McConnell is guaranteeing passage of a bill that reflects Democratic priorities and reaches Obama's desk on his timeline.
On the question of future tax increases, Democrats and Republicans in the meeting drew different conclusions. When Obama said it was "too early" to discuss possible tax increases, Republicans said that opened the door to prematurely repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that are now due to expire in 2011.
Democrats and administration officials insisted Obama meant nothing of the kind. Instead, they said the president was prudently keeping his options open as he develops his first budget and analyzes the state of the economy and evaluates whether more federal dollars will be needed to aid ailing banks.
The "I won" comment came after Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Republicans believed cutting income taxed would do more to stimulate economic growth than providing a $500 per person payroll tax refund for individuals earning less than $200,000. The president said, according to those present, that this was an important philosophical divide between Republican and Democrats and that it had already been settled -- and would remain settled -- because he won the election.