Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House, says she's optimistic that Democrats and Republicans will reach a deal that would avoid triggering a wide array of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect in the new year and that experts say could send the economy into a recession.
"We were there last summer," she said in an interview with All Things Considered's Robert Siegel this afternoon. "The president agreed to a grand bargain that would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion. Speaker Boehner walked away from that. He said the president walked away from that. Well, let's all walk back to it."
What Pelosi, a California representative, was referring to is the talks that happened during the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, last year.
"I believe that Democrats and Republicans alike are responsible," she said, "that we've reached a level of maturity that we know what we have to do for our country."
Pelosi added that Congress should act to extend the Bush-era tax cuts on middle class Americans and set them aside from those that affect households earning more than $250,000 a year.
Robert asked Pelosi if Democrats were willing to cut entitlements, which make up a large percentage of the budget.
She said that Democrats had already proposed more than $1 trillion in cuts.
"We have to make cuts," she said. But they have to be made carefully so they won't affect growth. Pelosi added that Democrats want to continue making investments in infrastructure and education, yet they know they have to make "tough choices."
But the minority leader kept coming back to the bargain the two sides had agreed to last year. A bargain, she said, that the American public approved of when they reelected President Obama.
"This is just a decision," she said. "There's no mystery; there's no new factors that are going to enter into the situation.
"The debate is a clear one. The people have spoken. The president campaigned on this balanced and fair, big agreement. Now let's just get down and write it."
Robert also asked Pelosi if she would be open to raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare.
Pelosi said she would not start there. It wouldn't be fair, she said, to make changes to those programs before asking wealthy Americans to pay "their fair share."
Pelosi also praised Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole as courageous. Cole broke with his GOP colleagues by saying Republicans should just go ahead and extend tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans and leave the discussion about the rest for later.
That, said Pelosi, is "indicative of some common sense coming from their caucus."
Much more of Robert and Pelosi's conversation is on tonight's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find a local NPR member station that carries the program. We'll post the as-aired version of the interview on this post later on tonight.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
So where do House Democrats stand on negotiations? Well, I visited the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, earlier today in her office to hear her thoughts on the prospects of a deal. Leader Pelosi, welcome to the program.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: My pleasure to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Earlier today, when you were asked about deficit reduction, you said there has to be a deal. There has to be an agreement, so let's understand that it has to happen and to engineer back from, say, the middle of December till now. Are Democrats and Republicans in Washington really on track to reach an agreement by mid-December, two-and-a-half weeks from now?
PELOSI: Now we could be. We were at agreement last summer, and we can go right to that place again.
SIEGEL: But that place resulted in no agreement. It was rejected.
PELOSI: We were last summer was that the president agreed to a grand bargain that would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion. Speaker Boehner walked away from that. He said the president walked away from that. Well, let's all walk back to it. That was then, this is now.
PELOSI: The makings of $4 trillion agreement are there.
SIEGEL: But apart from the fact that you could be on track for mid-December, do you feel that from what you hear of talks so far that people actually are on track for a deal by mid-December?
PELOSI: Well, let me say that I believe that Democrats and Republicans alike in the Congress are responsible, that we've reached a level of maturity that we know what we have to do for our country. And maybe that's being optimistic, but I know that my Democrats are ready.
What we can do right away is pass middle-income tax cut. The president has called for that. The Senate has voted for it. House Democrats stand ready to vote for that. It's just the House Republicans that are standing in the way of what one of their own members, Tom Cole, has said would be a Christmas present to the American people.
SIEGEL: So far Congressman Cole seems to stand alone among senior Republicans in saying that.
PELOSI: Well, he was very courageous, obviously, in doing so, but he spoke truth.
SIEGEL: But he doesn't augur well for a deal on that.
PELOSI: Well, you know, I think if their own people are starting to say that they should not be isolated, the president has a pen in hand, ready to sign a middle-income tax cut. The Senate has already voted on it. Democrats, again, stand ready to vote for it. This is like the payroll tax cut of a few years ago where the president, the Senate in a bipartisan way, the House Democrats where all ready to have the payroll tax holiday and the Republicans painted themselves into a corner until they finally surrendered.
SIEGEL: Leader Pelosi, I want to read you something from a Washington Post editorial today. It says that President Obama was clear in the campaign that deficit reduction must be balanced, including spending cuts as well as tax increases. Since 60 percent of the federal budget goes to entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the Post editorial says, there's no way to achieve balance without slowing the rate of increase in those programs. Do you agree with that?
PELOSI: Well, what I agree with is that we have already - this Congress voted nearly $1.5 trillion in cuts. Some of those cuts affect entitlements. I also believe what they sat, you have to have the balance between revenue and cuts, and that's what we're waiting for the Republicans to do. We've already voted for over $1.5 trillion in cuts.
SIEGEL: One last - about a couple of ideas that are out there. One is delaying the age of eligibility for Social Security or for Medicare. On the table? Something you might have to consider?
PELOSI: Let me just say that any consideration about Social Security should be on its own table. If the initiative is there to say how do we prolong and strengthen Social Security, then let's take whatever changes we need to make in furtherance of strengthening Social Security but not in terms of giving tax cuts to wealthy individuals in our country.
PELOSI: On Medicare - and Medicare, there are some places that we can also make savings. I would not - I don't think the first place we should go would be to raise the age.
SIEGEL: But in either program, is it conceivable much, as you might not like it since the package that's going to result from this, if there is one, will have things that everybody dislikes, is it something you might have to accept delaying the age for either program.
PELOSI: I have always said that part of the big package will take a look at some changes. I do not think we should raise the eligibility age. I think that for those of us who work in air conditioned buildings and have no outdoor, heavy lifting, it might be one thing to say the age should be lifted. But for some other people who do outdoor work and heavy lifting, it's a different story.
SIEGEL: So that, you know, or you're just having a nonstarter for House Democrats, raising the age, or it's just something that you wouldn't like to do, but you'll have to look at the whole package when it comes to...
PELOSI: Well, what I would have said is - and I want to be as courteous as possible, is that I have absolutely no intention of answering one little piece of any of it. Our caucus is united in saying the integrity and the strength of Social Security and Medicare are the values that we bring to the table.
SIEGEL: On taxes; when Democrats, say, raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans...
SIEGEL: ...in your definition, who are the wealthiest Americans, and is that a flexible number?
PELOSI: The president has been very clear. The president has said that for us to go forward we must have expiration of the tax cuts for people making over $250,000 a year.
SIEGEL: Individuals or couples making $250,000 a year?
PELOSI: That's couples. It's couples. But it is - yes, it's couples making over $250,000 a year. So that's where we are. And when we do that, we'll be able to do a number of things. We have to have cuts. We know that. We want to be careful about what they are because we don't want to cut growth. We want to have investments in infrastructure and education and the rest and know that we have to make some other tough choices. But we have to make priorities, and that's our job.
And in terms of revenue, we think that the high-end should pay its fair share. It's not a question of being punitive or trying to find money to spend more money. It's about reducing the deficit to create growth.
SIEGEL: But does the number $250,000, say, as an income, does that have the same significance to, say, the age of eligibility for Medicare or Social Security, or is this something that you'll end up negotiating a number in the end?
PELOSI: The president was very clear in the campaign: $250,000 and above, expiration of the high-end tax cuts. A great deal of money comes from that, over $800 billion.
SIEGEL: By the way, given the mid-December date that you talked about, is that when the cliff sets in? I mean, do we go over the cliff on - around December 15 if you don't have a...
SIEGEL: ...something that - a bill that you're working on and is (unintelligible)
PELOSI: No. It's January 1. But December 15 is when we do our Hanukkah and Christmas shopping. And we want that to be - the new income tax cut to be a Christmas and Hanukkah, every possible phase, a celebration of their religion or none.
SIEGEL: So it's not a dictate of the legislative calendar that you're saying. It's just when you'd like to have it done and (unintelligible).
PELOSI: Well, if you're going to have something by at the end of the year, you have to have something agreed to a couple of weeks in advance because the bill has to be written, has to - in the House, had to be passed in the Senate, signed by the president. So it takes a little bit of time.
SIEGEL: Which is really my question. I mean, is that a real deadline that we should be thinking in terms of that if you all cannot get to some place by December 15, we're in a lot of trouble.
PELOSI: I would say that 23rd, if everybody wants to work over Christmas writing bills. But I don't think that we have to do that. I think that - look, everybody knows, this is just a decision. There's no mystery. There's no new factors that are going to enter into the situation. The debate is a clear one. The election was held. The people had spoken. The president campaigned on this balanced and fair big agreement. Now let's just get to it.
SIEGEL: Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Thank you very much.
PELOSI: Happy holidays to you.
SIEGEL: And elsewhere in today's program, we hear a Senate Republican's view on the fiscal challenges ahead in an interview with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.
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