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With the election over, attention in Washington has turned to the nation's debt and deficit challenges — most immediately the looming fiscal cliff. That's the $600 billion worth of expiring tax breaks and automatic spending cuts set to start taking effect Jan. 1.
The president and Congress agreed to those automatic measures to force themselves to find a more palatable compromise to rein in deficits. On Wednesday, there was an attempt to jump-start that process.
In his victory speech Tuesday night in Chicago, President Obama signaled his desire to find a compromise. He said the priorities for his second term include deficit reduction. Eighteen hours later at the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner offered the president a tentative olive branch.
"Mr. President, the Republican majority here in the House stands ready to work with you, to do what's best for our country," Boehner said.
Last year, Boehner's House Republicans steadfastly refused to raise taxes to reach the balanced deficit-reducing budget compromise sought by the president, one that included both tax increases and spending cuts. On Wednesday, Boehner suggested that had changed.
"For the purposes of forging a bipartisan agreement that begins to solve the problem, we're willing to accept new revenue under the right conditions," he said. "What matters is where the increased revenue comes from and what type of reform comes with it."
Boehner suggested he was talking about revenues that flowed from closing tax loopholes and lowering rates and increasing growth.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, was skeptical.
"I would say to the speaker and House Republicans, let's put your plan on the table," he said. Van Hollen said Obama has made clear he's willing to work on a compromise, but Van Hollen said is afraid Boehner's offer is much like those made by Republicans before.
"In the past, whenever they've talked about tax reform as part of a revenue-raising measure, they have simply claimed, contrary to all historical evidence, that simply reducing tax rates will generate enough economic activity to make up for the loss in revenue," Van Hollen said.
In an earlier post-election comment Wednesday, Boehner said that by keeping Republicans in control of the House, voters had made clear there is no mandate for raising taxes. An added barrier to tax hikes is that many Republicans have taken a pledge not to vote for tax increases.
That logjam has some Democrats, like Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, arguing that the party should be willing to go over the fiscal cliff. That would put pressure on Republicans to make a deal by Jan. 1, or face the prospect of an automatic expiration of the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush.
"I think the Democrats have to take advantage of the fact that there is leverage here," Welch said.
And Welch thinks even if no agreement is reached prior to Jan. 1 and lawmakers wind up going over the cliff, there's a good chance they'll come up with a more comprehensive plan for long-term deficit reduction early next year.
"And if we did, my view [is] that would be the best outcome for the economy and for the middle class," Welch said.
He said one silver lining for Republicans is that there would be no need to vote for tax increases in this process. Taxes would rise automatically as the Bush tax cuts expired on Jan. 1. And the subsequent long-term deal would no doubt involve a tax cut as tax breaks for the middle class were reinstated.
But Welch acknowledged that it's risky. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office has said going over the fiscal cliff could throw the U.S. economy back into recession and raise the unemployment rate. A sharp drop in the stock market Wednesday was attributed to jitters over the fiscal cliff.
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