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Deal on Tax Cuts Rankles Hill Democrats

House and Senate Democrats remained deeply skeptical of President Barack Obama’s tax cut deal Tuesday, after a full-day sales pitch by White House officials that the agreement with the GOP is the best they could get given the circumstances.

Despite a mid-afternoon visit to the Senate by Vice President Joseph Biden to try to calm Democratic nerves — and a nationally televised press conference by Obama in which he chided Democrats over their “ideological purity” — party leadership in both chambers remained noncommittal.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), normally one of the loudest cheerleaders for any White House proposal, refused to say whether he would support the bill. Reid said after the meeting with Biden that he would “do what’s best” for the country and that “I think we’re going to have to do some more work” to build support.

During the meeting with Democrats, aides said, lawmakers were often openly combative with the vice president. “Biden got an unfriendly reception. Lots of hostile questioning and grousing, particularly about the estate tax. Senators were not on their best behavior,” a senior Democratic aide said.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) refused to comment after the meeting, repeatedly telling reporters, “I’m not talking.”

Senate Democrats, who will likely take up the bill sometime late this week or early next week, are set to meet today to further discuss the measure in hopes of beginning to build support.

House leaders were equally cool to the deal, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) criticizing the agreement while refusing to say she would oppose it. When asked what else House Democrats might seek to make the deal more palatable, Pelosi said, “To be continued.”

House Democratic leaders first learned about the White House deal with Senate Republicans from a press report in the Daily Caller, according to a Democratic source familiar with the negotiations. Particularly galling for Democrats is that a number of administration officials were told that including any sort of estate tax proposal was a real problem. Some Democrats thought this was not a make-or-break item for Republicans, but the administration gave in anyway.

House Democrats are also irritated that Obama negotiated the deal mostly with Senate Republicans.

Asked whether he thought House Democrats had enough input before Obama announced the deal, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said, “I don’t think House Democrats think so.”

Other top Democrats also ripped into the deal, and the reaction from rank-and-file Members was even worse.

“It makes everyone yelling ‘deficit, deficit’ the biggest hypocrites in the world,” House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said. 

Rep. Peter Welch, who is rallying opposition to the deal, said it will add $900 billion to the national debt, empowering Republicans to fight everything else Democrats want by arguing that the country can’t afford it.

“It’s the same trap the Republican leadership set so effectively when they put two wars, a prescription drug program and the Bush tax cuts on the credit card,” the Vermont Democrat said in a statement.

On the Senate side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was leading the charge against the bill, denouncing it as a “moral outrage.” 

“I am willing to do anything and everything I can [to block it] … including a filibuster,” he said.

Even Senate Democrats who said they were on the fence said they had major reservations, particularly given the state of the nation’s finances.

“We’ve got this huge debt and deficit, and this only adds to it. It’s a problem,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said.

Likewise, Sen. Mary Landrieu, who voted for the original Bush-era tax cuts, said that while she may end up voting for the bill, she finds the extension of cuts for the wealthiest Americans “unconscionable.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to me, and so I’m very concerned,” the Louisiana Democrat said.

Republicans, meanwhile, reacted with muted glee. Sen. John McCain said he supports the compromise. “It’s a recognition of reality,” the Arizona Republican said.

Although Republicans were urged not to gloat by their leadership, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) made the deal a centerpiece of a Tuesday fundraising e-mail, arguing that Obama’s willingness to deal was a direct result of the GOP’s gains in last month’s midterm elections.

“President Obama’s decision yesterday to join with Republicans in opposing the largest tax increase in American history was made not because he had a sudden change in political or economic philosophy. For the last two years, the Obama Administration refused to work with Republicans, and Democrats in the Senate had the votes to ram through any legislation they wanted,” he wrote.

Not all of the news was bad for Obama’s team, with a handful of Democrats coming out in favor of the proposal.

“While there are some elements of the plan that I deeply dislike, I embrace the tax cuts package announced yesterday by President Obama,” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said he was not the only one supportive of tax agreement. “The main point is, what’s the alternative?” said Lieberman, who added that Democrats should be gratified that they secured a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and a rewrite of Obama’s “Making Work Pay” tax break, along with other tax breaks that help working families.

Lieberman predicted that, in the end, “more than half of the Democratic caucus will vote for this.”

Jennifer Bendery and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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