House speaker backs away from an idea on higher tax rate for wealthy

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza breaks down the priorities of liberal interest groups in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. (The Washington Post)

For a moment Friday, it seemed like House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was open to the idea of higher tax rates on the wealthy as part of a deal to avoid the potentially painful austerity measures known as the “fiscal cliff.”

But his office later backed off, restating his long-standing opposition to any increase in the top tax rate, illustrating the deep political sensitivity of the topic among Republicans.

President Obama has said any deal to avert the broad tax increases and automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect next month must include an agreement that the top marginal income tax rate rise from 35 percent.

On Friday, Vice President Biden said the White House was willing to “negotiate how far up” the rate rises. Without congressional action, it will rise to 39.6 percent in January, as tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush expire.

Asked Friday if he could agree to some “middle ground” on tax rates — perhaps a 37 percent top rate, Boehner told reporters, “There are a lot of things that are possible to put the revenue that the president seeks on the table.” That suggested to some that he was open to some negotiated increase in the top rate.

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But shortly after, his office released a statement reasserting Boehner’s opposition to higher rates. “That has not changed, and will not change,” he said.

Boehner earlier this week proposed a deal with $800 billion in new revenue, but from capping deductions and not raising rates.

Boehner said Friday he was frustrated by Obama’s unwillingness to make equal concessions on entitlement cuts. He said there had been “no progress,” despite a Wednesday phone call between the two.

Some congressional Democrats may be hesitant to accept a deal that does not allow the top rate to return to its 1990s level, particularly in lieu of the major changes to health and retirement programs that the GOP would probably demand in exchange for any increase.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday that raising the top rate to 37 percent may not bring enough new tax dollars to dent the debt without asking more of the middle class.

Pelosi — absent from recent talks between Boehner and Obama — met with the president Friday to discuss what an aide described as a “number of issues.”

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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