WASHINGTON — Disappointed Democratic congressional leaders demanded changes in the White House's tax deal with Republicans on Tuesday despite a spirited argument by President Barack Obama that concessions were preferable to higher taxes for millions of Americans.
"I'm not here to play games with the American people or the health of the economy," Obama said of his day-old deal, which is designed to avert a scheduled Jan. 1 expiration of tax cuts at all income levels.
In a remarkable political role reversal, Republicans lined up to support the package, while lawmakers of the president's party said they were prepared to oppose it. Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pledged to "do everything I can to defeat this," including a filibuster to prevent a final vote.
The deal includes an extension of expiring Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels — not just for lower and middle-income taxpayers, as Democrats wanted. It also contains a renewal of jobless benefits due to expire in a few weeks, and a one-year cut in Social Security taxes paid by workers.
Other elements would loosen the estate tax and provide breaks for businesses to spur hiring. Officials said that overall, the proposal could add $900 billion to the federal deficit over two years.
Democratic opposition focused chiefly on two parts of the deal that marked concessions to Republicans — the decision to let expiring tax cuts remain in effect for people in upper incomes, and a change in the estate tax that the GOP has long sought.
Pelosi called the estate tax provision "a bridge too far," and Reid also singled it out for criticism. It would allow $5 million per spouse to pass tax-free to heirs, and tax anything above that level at 35 percent.
The compromise is "something that's not done yet," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We're going to have to do some more work," he said after a closed door meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and members of the Democratic rank-and-file.
Across the Capitol, Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement that said, "We will continue discussions with the president and our caucus in the days ahead."
At his hastily called news conference, Obama bristled at times, casting himself in the role of compromiser-in-chief with the best interests of the economy and public in mind.
"This isn't an abstract debate. This is real money, It will make a real difference in the lives of people who sent us here," Obama said.
The presidential news conference was part of a full-scale defense of the agreement, which the White House said would pump billions into the economy at a time it is recovering from the worst recession in eight decades and unemployment stands at 9.8 percent.
The president was critical of Democrats and Republicans, saying that if purely partisan attitudes rule, compromise would be impossible.
At one point, he appeared to liken Republican lawmakers insisting on tax cuts for the wealthy to terrorists.
"I think it's tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. In this case the hostage is the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed," he said.