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Obama Scrambles to Win Dem Support on Tax Cut Bill as Conservatives Waver

  • Biden, Pelosi walk and talk tax cuts on Hill

    Dec. 8: Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talk after a Democratic Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill. (AP)

  • Levin, Reed confer on taxes

    Dec. 8: Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., left, and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., confer on Capitol Hill after a Democratic caucus luncheon. (AP)

  • Obama hands up at tax cut news conf

    Dec. 7: President Obama defends his tax cuts deal with Republicans at a news conference at the White House. (AP)

President Obama is scrambling to get his party on board with a costly package of tax cuts and spending measures, as a handful of prominent conservatives begin to question whether the deal Republicans brokered just days ago is good enough. 

Opinions of the proposal appear to be fluid, as Obama and his economic advisers make the hard sell to wary Democrats -- with Republicans waiting on the sidelines for the caucus to work out its issues. Congressional Democrats angry about the concessions Obama made to the GOP are beginning to ease their opposition, and some concede the package has enough party support to pass. At the same time, 54 House Democrats just penned a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposing the deal. And now Republicans, the biggest cheerleaders for the plan so far, are starting to express doubts. 

"It's kind of like we're the Titanic here in America, and everybody says, 'The bar's open. We'll just have a party the next two weeks'," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said on the floor, complaining about the size of the $800 billion-plus package. 

The bipartisan complaints aimed at the bipartisan deal underscore how difficult it is for anybody to forge a genuine compromise in Washington and could preview what the atmosphere will look like for split-party rule next year. The longer the latest stimulus-style package stays on the table, the more time lawmakers have to find something they dislike. And the discontent is spreading. 

"You can't govern if you don't compromise," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., told Fox News on Thursday. But he acknowledged that members of his party are concerned about the $56 billion worth of long-term unemployment benefits in the proposed deal. 

"There's considerable angst about the unpaid-for extension of unemployment insurance," Gregg said. "That's causing angst on our side of the aisle." 

Though Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell predicts his caucus will mostly hold together in support of the deal, a couple of his members have come out against it. And Thursday evening, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in via Twitter. 

"Obviously Obama is so very, very wrong on the economy & spins GOP tax cut goals; so fiscal conservatives: we expect you to fight for us & America's solvency," she wrote. 

Republicans on Capitol Hill have been worried Palin would come out against the deal, though leadership aides point out that prominent conservatives like Americans for Tax Reform chief Grover Norquist are in favor of the deal. 

The shakiness on the GOP side puts the onus on the White House to win over Democrats -- and fast. Vice President Biden met with Democratic lawmakers Tuesday, and the White House is leaving the door open for the possibility of a presidential visit. The White House pulled an alarm Wednesday when economic adviser Larry Summers warned that a "double-dip" recession could follow if the measure does not pass soon. 

The deal on the table would extend the Bush tax cuts for all taxpayers for two years -- Democrats had wanted them discontinued for the wealthy. The deal would also temporarily cut the payroll tax on employees for Social Security, extend long-term unemployment benefits, rein in the estate tax and provide breaks for businesses. 

Obama says the compromise was necessary because Republicans were prepared to let everyone's taxes rise and to block the extension of unemployment benefits for jobless Americans if they didn't get much of what they wanted. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders remained outwardly neutral to the tax cut compromise, criticizing some aspects but stopping short of urging or predicting its demise.
After the meeting with Biden, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he still had reservations about the package, indicating he hopes changes are made before the Senate acts. 

"We'll see what the Senate passes," Hoyer said. 

Other House Democrats offered a positive assessment. Even among Democrats, "there's more support in the caucus than there appears," Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia told reporters. "I think some people felt they had to vent." 

Biden took a tough stance, warning that any changes might unravel the compromise plan, said several House Democrats who attended the meeting. "The vice president said, 'This is the deal, take it or leave it,"' said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. 

The White House ballyhooed almost any elected Democrat who endorsed the tax plan, with no state or city too small to justify a press release. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas and Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx were among those praising the plan, the White House announced. 

But many House Democrats were unmoved. They particularly criticized Obama's proposed estate tax rates, which are far more generous than most Democrats had expected. 

The concession seemed gratuitous, said Rep. David Price, D-N.C. For now, he said, "there's a mood to resist" the overall package. 

Passage of Obama's plan seems more assured in the Senate, where numerous Democrats have agreed that the president had little choice in making the compromises with Republicans. Still, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he and colleagues are considering possible changes, and action could come within days. 

Changes designed to ease some Democrats' concerns might include a provision for bonds to help state and local governments pay for construction projects, tax breaks for wind power and clean-energy subsidies, lawmakers said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.