Congress had hoped to be out of town for the holidays by the end of this week. That's not looking likely anymore, with the negotiations on efforts to avert automatic tax hikes and spending cuts moving slowly, if at all. Tamara Keith talks to Audie Cornish.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And if past negotiations are any indication, that silence could mean the talks are going well. We're joined now by NPR's congressional reporter Tamara Keith, who has been following developments on the Hill and beyond. And as Ari just said, neither side is talking about the details, but Tamara, what are they saying?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Both Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, and Michael Steele, the Speaker's spokesman, are making it clear they don't intend to negotiate this thing through the media. Carney said the lines of communication are open and Steele said discussions are taking place. But neither would take the bait and talk about substance or details. And, you know, typically, when there are leaks and press conferences and chest-pounding, that means talks are breaking down.
And when suddenly it gets very quiet, that means negotiations are getting serious, and maybe offers are being made that they don't want word to get out about. You know, all we're getting officially is what we've been getting for some time, that the key sticking point remains raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Republicans don't want to do it. The White House says there's no deal unless it happens.
CORNISH: At the same time, there's this small but kind of growing chorus of Republicans, actually, saying that they should give the president what he wants and vote to extend the Bush era tax cuts for the middle class. I mean, what's the political calculus there? Well, if a deal can't be reached on January 1st, taxes will automatically rise on virtually everyone and polls show Republicans will get the blame.
KEITH: And the Democrats narrative will be that the Republicans held middle class tax cuts hostage to protect the rich. So, some Republicans are saying that they should just pass the middle class tax cuts now and live to fight another day on the higher income rates and on entitlement reforms, which is what they want. Or to put it another way, release the hostages while they can still get something for them.
But others are taking a hard line, so this is really, at this point, more about minority views within the Republican Party. That said, I've spoken to several House Republicans who aren't officially in favor of this position, but who say that if it starts looking like a more comprehensive deal isn't going to happen by the end of the year, that they'll very seriously consider voting for this middle class tax cut so they don't get the blame.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, House Democrats began circulating a petition to force that vote. Where does that effort stand? I mean, is it really serious?
KEITH: Discharge petitions are not generally successful and this one has tall odds as well. But it's really all about putting pressure on the Republicans and highlighting that House leadership is refusing to take up a bill that would extend tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers. It has 178 signatures so far, all of them are Democrats. So right now, it's symbolic and it would take about two dozen Republicans being willing to defy their leadership and sign the petition for this effort to succeed.
CORNISH: And lastly, lots of critics criticizing the White House, saying it's using campaign-style tactics to push this. And the Obama campaign sent an email earlier today encouraging the president's supporters to get involved. I mean, in what way does he mean?
KEITH: It's very much just like the campaign. An email from Stephanie Cutter, who, if people have been on the president's supporters list, get a lot of emails from deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. The subject line was Help the President by Making a Phone Call, or by picking up the phone. It's asking supporters to call their representatives if they live in a red congressional district and apply some pressure, or if they don't, they can use a tool to find fellow Obama supporters in Republican districts and encourage them to call their representatives and demand this middle class tax cut.
In another campaign flashback the Democrat congressional campaign committee is robo-calling voters in 35 targeted congressional districts saying that their representatives are holding the middle class hostage.
CORNISH: That's NPR's congressional reporter, Tamara Keith. Tamara, thank you.
KEITH: Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.