Washington, DC - President Barack Obama assured labor unions and liberal organizations Tuesday that he's firmly committed to letting tax cuts for higher incomes expire as scheduled at the end of the year, even as congressional Republicans accused him of refusing to propose a specific plan to settle a looming budget crisis.
Obama met with the labor and liberal groups for an hour at the White House, his first extended meeting with anyone from outside his administration since he won re-election a week ago. He told them he's committed to raising taxes on higher incomes as he negotiates with Congress on avoiding the "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases when Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of the year and automatic spending cuts negotiated during last year's debt crisis kick in.
"President Obama today strongly reiterated his steadfast commitment to ensuring that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent finally end Dec. 31 and to protecting the middle class in the process," said Justin Ruben, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn.org Political Action.
"The president, like we are, is committed to preserving the tax breaks for the middle class and making sure that rich people pay their fair share," said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. "We're very committed to making sure that the middle class and workers don't end up paying the tab for a party that we didn't get to go to and the president is committed to that as well."
Trumka and several other attendees, including National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel, wouldn't divulge details, including whether Obama talked about issues that some liberals oppose – including raising the eligibility age for Medicare.
Ruben sidestepped the question of Obama's position on Medicare, praising him generally but noting that his group's 7 million members would fight to protect Medicare and other entitlements from cuts.
"We also appreciate that the president again promised not to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class and the poor," Ruben said in a statement. "And our members are committed to defending Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from any benefit cuts as part of a budget deal."
Obama plans to meet with business executives Wednesday and congressional leaders Friday at the White House. Republicans Tuesday signaled they want to see more specifics from the president, and reiterated their staunch opposition to any change in tax rates.
Almost everything else, though, appeared to be up for discussion, and they want Obama to go first.
"How do we get around the stalemate? That's simple: presidential leadership. We will arrive at a plan when the president presents one, or we won't get anywhere at all." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a fiery floor speech.
He insisted he's seen no plan. "Instead of showing a faith and a willingness to solve the problem, we get the same tired talking point – that we can't cut our way to prosperity," McConnell said. "Well, that may poll well. But it isn't a plan. It's a cliche that's meant to shut down debate and prevent a serious proposal from ever taking shape."
The White House and Republican efforts to position themselves before talks start came as a new poll illustrated the political and economic stakes. Sixty percent of Americans said their own financial situation would get worse if the tax cuts expire.
The Pew Research Center survey also found most people would blame Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, for any stalemate. In the Senate, Republicans control 47 of the 100 seats, enough to wield considerable clout, since 60 votes are usually needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
McConnell charged that all he's heard so far is a "tedious repetition of poll-tested talking points." Lead, McConnell urged the president, and lead with a plan.
"So let me be clear," McConnell said, "When it comes to the great economic challenges of the moment, saying that you want a balanced approach is not a plan."
Senate Republicans did not discuss details of their own plan, though McConnell joined House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in ruling out any increase in tax rates. Obama wants to retain current rates for individuals earning less than $200,000 and families making less than $250,000.
For others, the current rates of 33 percent and 35 percent would return to the pre-Bush rates of 36 percent and 39.6 percent.
McConnell, like Boehner, said he'd be willing to seek ways to raise more revenue – but not with higher rates.
"Republicans like me have said for more than a year now that we're open to new revenue in exchange for meaningful reforms to the entitlement programs that are the primary drivers of our debt," he said, "so that we can reduce the deficit, protect these programs for today's seniors, and strengthen them for future generations."