Alabama Republican Party Chairman Mike Hubbard gestures as he welcomes four Democrats to the Republican Party during a news conference in Montgomery, Ala., Nov. 22. (AP Photo)
Congressional Democrats searched for leverage Friday in their bitter debate with Republicans over extending George W. Bush-era tax cuts, lashing out against giving "tax breaks to millionaires" and preparing for a rare weekend session in the Senate on the issue.
But the increasingly aggressive Democratic posture may come too late in the protracted battle over the fate of tax cuts that are set to expire Dec. 31. The White House has indicated it would consider an agreement with Republicans to temporarily extend all tax breaks, even for households earning more than $250,000 annually, if the GOP agreed to concessions and withdrew its block on certain Democratic priorities.
Throughout the week, Democrats appeared to hold the weaker hand as emboldened Republicans demanded a permanent across-the-board extension of tax cuts, even for the 2% of households that have earnings over $250,000.
But after days of internal debate, and as liberal outside groups began stepping up advertising and outreach efforts nationwide, Democratic lawmakers returned Friday to a common-man narrative, trying to shake off the listlessness of their midterm election rout last month.
Their efforts came as the unemployment rate crept up to 9.8% and a presidential commission said dramatic action was needed to avoid a crisis of government debt. To contemplate $700 billion in tax breaks for wealthy people under such circumstances, Democrats said, should lead conservative activists who fueled the midterm election results to "take up pitchforks."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that, like Republican counterparts, he spoke with many angry voters this fall during his reelection campaign.
"Not a single one of them, from the 'tea party' or anywhere else, said, 'Give tax breaks to millionaires,' " Schumer said. "We believe this is really a seminal moment in our nation's history."
Outside Washington, the Democratic base has grown disenchanted and restless over the tax-cut debate. MoveOn.org, a hub of online liberal activism, distributed a video featuring voters pleading with President Obama to hold his ground against Republicans.
"What's happened to that bold progressive man we elected president?" an elderly woman asks.
Another liberal group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, ran a television ad using a clip of Obama on the 2008 presidential campaign trail promising to let the tax cuts for wealthier Americans expire.
Both groups will press their members to call lawmakers on Monday.
But in many ways, the Democratic awakening is not likely to be enough of a game-changer for a bargaining dynamic that was already well underway.
Despite Obama's campaign promise to roll back the Bush-era tax breaks on upper-income households to pay for investments in jobs and other domestic priorities, the White House appears to have little leverage in its talks with Republicans.
This uneven negotiation has congressional Democrats increasingly worried that the White House could forge a deal that would exclude Democratic legislative priorities in the final days of the lame-duck congressional session, such as immigration revisions and ending the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
As Democratic lawmakers charge ahead, they seem to move further from the president. The White House has all but promised concessions and has given only tepid support to the Democrats' hardball strategy. As if to underscore the distance between them, Obama took a surprise trip to Afghanistan, leaving Vice President Joe Biden to carry the message Friday.
The mix of efforts by the White House, Democratic lawmakers and independent groups only highlighted the party's internal hand-wringing over how best to fight back against Republicans. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is advocating a floor strategy that forces Republicans to continue taking one vote after another to defend their preference for tax cuts for the rich.
Such a scenario will become less likely as the Dec. 31 deadline nears, as it would fuel an already risky game of chicken with a recharged and brazen group of Republican leaders.
GOP leaders, in fact, may prefer a stalemate that lasts into the new year, when they will return with more members in the Senate and control of the House.
Democrats instead are intent on a swift resolution, one that would still allow time for the Senate to consider ratifying a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, an Obama priority, before adjourning for the year.
It has become increasingly apparent during the negotiations that any eventual deal is likely to be based on some type of temporary extension of the tax breaks for all income categories, perhaps for two years — which would bump up against the 2012 presidential election — or three.
A pact also may also depend on the fate of long-term unemployment benefits that expired this week, leaving 2 million jobless Americans without aid during the holidays.
Searching for public support, Democrats on Friday seized on a new CBS poll showing a majority of Americans wanted to extend the tax cuts only for earnings up to $250,000. But other polls have found the public more evenly divided on the issue.
The Senate will vote Saturday on a symbolic measure to extend tax breaks on earnings up to $250,000, similar to a vote in the House earlier in the week. The Senate also will vote on a second Democratic measure that would extend the tax breaks on income up to $1 million, essentially forcing Republicans to hold out for those earning beyond that amount. Neither is expected to pass.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dismissed the Saturday session as "show votes" and said they were an affront to millions of Americans in need of jobs.
"These votes are a purely political exercise at a time when Americans are looking for action," McConnell said. "It's time to get serious."
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made a direct plea to tea party activists.
"I'm trying to figure out how anyone can keep a straight face and say they're for deficit reduction while they insist on a permanent tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, completely unpaid for," she said. "They want to say this is class warfare — well, you know, in a way it is, because we are fighting for the middle class."
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The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The U.S. and South Korea have reached agreement on the largest trade pact in more than a decade, a highly-coveted deal the Obama administration hopes will boost American exports and create tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.
After a week of marathon negotiations, representatives from both countries broke through a stalemate Friday on outstanding issues related to the automobile industry, which have been a sticking point in the talks.
The agreement would be the largest U.S. trade deal since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and would bolster U.S. economic ties with South Korea, the world's 15th largest economy. The deal is often referred to as NAFTA.
South Korea is agreeing to allow the U.S. to lift a 2.5 percent tariff on Korean cars in five years, instead of cutting the tariff immediately. The agreement also allows each U.S. automaker to export 25,000 cars to South Korea as long as they meet U.S. federal safety standards, and it allows the U.S. to continue a 25 percent tariff on trucks for eight years before phasing it out by the 10th year. South Korea would be required to eliminate its 10 percent tariff on U.S. trucks immediately.
President Obama hailed the agreement as a "landmark trade deal" that would support at least 70,000 U.S. jobs.
"We are strengthening our ability to create and defend manufacturing jobs in the United States, increasing exports of agricultural products for American farmers and ranchers and opening Korea's services market to American companies," Obama said in a statement.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak praised the deal as bringing huge economic benefits to both countries and further boosting the two nations' alliance.
"This agreement is meaningful in that it has laid the basis for a mutual win-win by reflecting interests for the two countries in a balanced manner," Lee said in a statement posted on the presidential website.
The White House had hoped to strike a deal last month during Obama's trip to Seoul for the G-20 economic summit, but both countries were unable to broker a compromise on issues pertaining to trade of autos and beef. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and his counterpart, Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, resumed negotiations outside Washington this week.
The agreement did not address issues with the beef trade. The U.S. had sought greater access to the beef market in South Korea, which restricts imports of older U.S. meat. A senior administration official said discussions on beef are ongoing. The official insisted on anonymity to discuss private negotiations.
The wider agreement would eliminate tariffs on more than 95 percent of industrial and consumer goods within five years, a move that the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated would increase exports of U.S. goods by at least $10 billion. The deal would also open up South Korea's vast $560 billion services markets to U.S. companies.
The agreement must still be ratified by lawmakers in both countries. Administration officials offered no timeline for ratification on Capitol Hill.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the agreement was, "a positive development" toward promoting economic growth and private sector job creation. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the agreement would make U.S. exports more competitive and create more opportunities for American companies to create jobs.
The South Korea deal has been widely supported by those in the private sector and the Chamber of Commerce, which has criticized other administration policies as antibusiness.
"This agreement will create thousands of new jobs, advance our national goal of doubling exports in five years, and demonstrate that America is once again ready to lead on trade," Chamber president Tom Donohue said Friday.
Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally said the deal would give the automaker "greater confidence that we will be able to better serve our Korean customers."
Posted by Mary Dooe
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has once more reiterated that she will not run for president in 2012, going so far as to refer to her current role in government as "my last public position."
At a town hall meeting appearance in Manama, Bahrain on Friday, Clinton denied intentions to run for either president or vice president on the ticket with President Obama, who defeated her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Some experts have also speculated that she could replace Robert Gates next year when he retires as secretary of defense.
"I think I will serve as secretary of state as my last public position," she said. Clinton's career has included not only her current position as secretary of state, but also eight years in the Senate representing New York.
Clinton has repeatedly laughed off rumors that she may seek the highest office in the country, and she was notably out of the country during the midterm elections when Democrats lost control of the House.
When her current position is over, Clinton "would like to continue working to improve lives for others," she said, adding that she will "probably go back to advocacy work, particularly on women and children and probably around the world." This marks the first time Clinton has publicly discussed alternatives to political office in her future.
In returning to advocacy work, she could follow in the footsteps of her husband and former President Bill Clinton, who has largely turned to humanitarian work through his Clinton Foundation since leaving the White House.
Mrs. Clinton has formerly worked extensively for the rights of women and children. She went on to note that while she has had a "fascinating and rewarding public career," she particularly enjoyed her time as a lawyer for the Children's Defense Fund, which advocates for abused and neglected children, as well as her women's rights work, according to Reuters.
"I feel very lucky because of my parents and then my education, the opportunities that I've had, so I would like to continue working to improve lives for others," she added.
In addition to personal passions, Clinton also noted the strain of the job of president as a deterrent towards seeking further election.
"Every president, if you watch what they look like when they come into office, you can see their hair turn white because it's such a hard job," she said.