WASHINGTON (AP) – Senators bickered Sunday over who’s to blame for lurching the country toward a year-end “fiscal cliff,” bemoaning the lack of a deal days before the deadline but bridging no differences in the debate.
With the collapse Thursday of House Speaker John Boehner’s plan to allow tax rates to rise on million-dollar-plus incomes, Sen. Joe Lieberman said “it’s the first time that I feel it’s more likely we’ll go over the cliff than not,” meaning that higher taxes for most Americans and painful federal agency budget cuts would be in line to go ahead.
“If we allow that to happen it will be the most colossal consequential act of congressional irresponsibility in a long time, maybe ever in American history because of the impact it’ll have on almost every American,” said Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.
Wyoming Sen. Jon Barrasso, a member of the GOP leadership, predicted that the new year would come without an agreement, and he faulted the White House. “I believe the president is eager to go over the cliff for political purposes. He senses a victory at the bottom of the cliff,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the city where a protest over tax policy sparked a revolution, modern day tea party activists are cheering the recent Republican revolt in Washington.
“I want conservatives to stay strong,” says Christine Morabito, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party. “Sometimes things have to get a lot worse before they get better.”
Anti-tax conservatives from every corner of the nation echo her sentiment.
In more than a dozen interviews with The Associated Press, activists said they would rather fall off the cliff than agree to a compromise that includes tax increases for any Americans, no matter how high their income.
They dismiss economists’ warnings that the automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1 could trigger a fresh recession, and they overlook the fact that most people would see their taxes increase if President Barack Obama and Boehner, R-Ohio, fail to reach a year-end agreement.
The strong opposition among tea party activists and Republican leaders from New Hampshire to Wyoming and South Carolina highlights divisions within the GOP as well as the challenge that Obama and Boehner face in trying to get a deal done.
On Capitol Hill, some Republicans worry about the practical and political implications should the GOP block a compromise designed to avoid tax increases for most Americans and cut the nation’s deficit.
“It weakens the entire Republican Party, the Republican majority,” Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, said Thursday night shortly after rank-and-file Republicans rejected Boehner’s “Plan B” – a measure that would have prevented tax increases on all Americans but million-dollar earners.
“I mean it’s the continuing dumbing down of the Republican Party and we are going to be seen more and more as a bunch of extremists that can’t even get a majority of our own people to support policies that we’re putting forward,” LaTourette said. “If you’re not a governing majority, you’re not going to be a majority very long.”
It’s a concern that does not seem to resonate with conservatives such as tea party activist Frank Smith of Cheyenne, Wyo. He cheered Boehner’s failure as a victory for anti-tax conservatives and a setback for Obama, just six weeks after the president won re-election on a promise to cut the deficit in part by raising taxes on incomes exceeding $250,000.
Smith said his “hat’s off” to those Republicans in Congress who rejected their own leader’s plan.
“Let’s go over the cliff and see what’s on the other side,” the blacksmith said. “On the other side” are tax increases for most Americans, not just the top earners, though that point seemed lost on Smith, who added: “We have a day of reckoning coming, whether it’s next week or next year. Sooner or later the chickens are coming home to roost. Let’s let them roost next week.”
It’s not just tea party activists who want Republicans in Washington to stand firm.
In conservative states such as South Carolina and Louisiana, party leaders are encouraging members of their congressional delegations to oppose any deal that includes tax increases. Elected officials from those states have little political incentive to cooperate with the Democratic president, given that most of their constituents voted for Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
“If it takes us going off a cliff to convince people we’re in a mess, then so be it,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said. “We have a president who is a whiner. He has done nothing but blame President Bush. It’s time to make President Obama own this economy.”
In Louisiana, state GOP Chairman Roger Villere said that “people are frustrated with Speaker Boehner. They hear people run as conservatives, run against tax hikes. They want them to keep their word.”
Jack Kimball, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman, said he was “elated” that conservatives thwarted Boehner. He called the looming deadline a political creation. “The Republicans really need to stand on their principles. They have to hold firm.”
Conservative opposition to compromise with Obama does not reflect the view of most Americans, according to recent public opinion polls.
A CBS News survey conducted this month found that 81 percent of adults wanted Republicans in Congress to compromise in the current budget negotiations to get a deal done rather than “stick to their positions even if it means not coming to an agreement.” The vast majority of Republicans and independent voters agreed.
Overall, 47 percent in the poll said they blamed Republicans in Congress more than Obama and Democrats for recent “difficulties in reaching agreements and passing legislation in Congress.” About one-quarter placed more blame on the Democrats and 21 percent said both were responsible.
Although negotiations broke down last week, Obama still hopes to broker a larger debt-reduction deal that includes tax increases on high earners and Republican-favored cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. If a compromise continues to prove elusive, lawmakers could pass a temporary extension that delays the cliff’s most onerous provisions and gives Congress more time to work out a longer-term solution.
That’s becoming the favored path by some Republicans leery of going over the cliff.
Mississippi Republican Chairman Joe Nosef shares his Southern colleagues’ disdain for tax increases. But he stopped short of taking an absolute position.
“I really, really feel like the only way that Republicans can mess up badly is if they come away with nothing on spending or something that’s the same old thing where they hope a Congress in 10 years will have the intestinal fortitude to do it,” he said.
Matt Kibbe, president of the national organization and tea party ally, FreedomWorks, says that going over the cliff would be “a fiscal disaster.” He says “the only rational thing to do” is approve a temporary extension that prevents widespread tax increases.
But his message doesn’t seem to resonate with conservative activists in the states.
“If we have to endure the pain of the cliff then so be it,” said Mark Anders, a Republican committeeman for Washington state’s Lewis County. “While it may spell the end of the Republican Party ... at least we will force the government to cut and cut deep into actual spending.”
Back where the Boston Tea Party protest took place in 1773, Morabito wonders whether Boehner will survive the internal political upheaval and says Republicans need to unite against Obama.
“It looked like from the very beginning they were just going to cave to what President Obama wanted,” she said of the GOP. “I didn’t want that to happen. Now I’m hopeful that they’re standing up for taxpaying Americans.”
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Rachel La Corte and Michael Baker in Washington state, Thomas Beaumont in Iowa, and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.