WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama took the unusual step of turning to a Democratic predecessor, former President Bill Clinton, to help rescue the tax-cut compromise plan as conservative Republicans began to join a widening opposition that includes growing criticism from the president’s own party.
Clinton appeared with Obama at the White House briefing room to endorse the deal in the latest twist of the lurching debate, which has tightened its grip on Washington. It was the first such appearance by the former president during Obama’s presidency.
The two men entered the briefing room in smiles. Midway, Obama left to attend a Christmas party and Clinton took questions on his own for some time, a flashback moment, with the White House placard over his shoulder.
But the tax cut compromise, which mixes an uneasy blend of liberal and conservative objectives, now threatens to upend Democratic priorities before the party surrenders control of the House in 2011.
The GOP has made good on its threat to block any action in the Senate before Congress acts to prevent tax cuts from expiring Dec. 31. As a result, Democratic leaders have been forced into off-balance maneuvers and last-ditch efforts to reach their goals in a tumultuous lame-duck congressional session.
Despite the political pressure of a tax increase on Jan. 1 if Congress fails to act, more lawmakers from both parties expressed misgivings Friday.
“If the Democrats are going to lard it up with even more spending, guys like me are going to have to vote no,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. The plan now has an estimated cost of $858 billion.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said that while he knew only a handful of Republicans like himself who were planning to vote against the tax deal, “that list is growing.”
The White House remained confident a deal will be reached but worked hard to make sure it is, recruiting allies ranging from the mayor of Kokomo, Ind., to Clinton himself.
“I don’t believe there’s a better deal out there,” Clinton said during a White House visit.
The efforts to round up votes come as the Senate prepares to hold its first vote Monday on approving the tax package. With the congressional session waning, House Democrats must decide how far they’re willing to fight to change the proposal. The Senate could send the bill to the House by the middle of next week.
The depth of the opposition’s anger was visible on the Senate floor on Friday as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., engaged in a lonely, filibuster-like speech against the proposal.
Sanders, perhaps the most liberal member of Congress, held the floor for most of the day Friday, occasionally relieved by Democratic fellow senators who have raised concerns about the deal.
“I’m not here to set any great records or to make a spectacle,” Sanders said in opening. “I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have got to do a lot better than this agreement provides.”
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