White House and Coburn trade barbs over tax deal and fiscal responsibility

President Obama and Sen. Tom Coburn have always had a relationship that is odd by Washington standards.

They are total opposites in terms of personal style and their political points of view. But they have maintained what is, by all appearances, a warm personal friendship that was first formed when they both entered the Senate in 2004. Coburn has spoken often of how he prays for Obama and writes him encouraging letters.

“How better to influence somebody than love them?” Coburn has said. “We’re very good friends.”

Late this past week, however, the debate over the president’s tax deal with Republicans – and a side debate about the nation’s deficit and debt – provoked some of the strongest barbs between Obama and Coburn to date. The crossfire occurred between surrogates, and not between the two principals, but was nonetheless notable for its intensity.

The sniping began Friday morning when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked in a press briefing about Coburn’s comments earlier in the week warning of an imminent debt crisis if the government does not present a plan to reduce its budget deficit and unfunded long-term obligations.

Gibbs said that while Coburn “is a friend of the president” there was “a little dissonance” in the Oklahoma Republican’s debt warnings and his support for extending all of the Bush tax cuts for two more years.

The issue at the heart of the tax deal debate is whether those who make more than $250,000 a year should see their taxes go up rather than stay at the current levels. Gibbs and most Democrats say that extending tax cuts costs money, and to the extent that they are comparing the gap between projected government revenues and planned government spending, they are correct.

“There’s a price tag on this bill that according to some it doesn’t actually—it’s not spending,” Gibbs said.

But Republicans like Coburn argue that keeping rates the same only adds to the deficit if you are working off a budget projections that assumes rates were going to go up, as the White House has done. And the answer of many conservatives to liberal complaints about tax cuts is that to keep the deficit from ballooning, spending should be cut. (Democrats often say Republicans are much better at cutting taxes than cutting spending, and based on the past decade, they are largely correct).

In the present scenario, however, it is the hope of some conservatives like Coburn that maintaining current tax rates will put pressure on the government to cut spending. Keeping tax rates steady and lowering spending, they believe, will create sustainable economic growth – the key ingredient to ultimately bringing down the nation’s debt.