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.
The official price tag on the tax deal is $858 billion, but most of that figure comes from extending tax cuts and deductions. Republicans point out that tax cuts do not add to the debt, spending does. Many are willing to add to the short-term deficit, betting it will reduce mid- to long-term deficits and debt.
But Coburn is concerned about any impact on the short-term deficit, because of the economy’s slow growth and the nation’s precarious position with its creditors. He has been warning with increasing frequency that the government must present some plan to cut deficits and solve the problem of runaway entitlement problems, before creditors lose confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States.
But Gibbs dismissed Coburn’s warnings out of hand based on his support for extending all the Bush tax cuts.
“You have to understand, regardless of your philosophical viewpoint, that the argument that Senator Coburn is making – and again, a friend of the president’s – doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Gibbs said.
“You can’t – if your concern is the short term debt crisis, meaning the next year or two, and then the next thing you say or the thing you said previous to that is, ‘My gosh we can’t not extend tax rates for millionaires and billionaires’: Those are—they may [be] philosophical differences, they’re also fundamentally incongruent.”
A Coburn spokesman shot back a fiery response in an e-mail to The Daily Caller.
“The ‘dissonance’ is the gap between the claim we need to pay for tax cuts without any meaningful effort to do so. Dr. Coburn has identified more than $350 billion in wasteful spending and we are only one office. Moreover, Dr. Coburn just supported the debt commission’s recommendations, which would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion through 2020,” said Coburn spokesman John Hart.
“Where is the White House’s plan? Where is their list of cuts? How many spending bills have they vetoed? The world wants to see action, not hear class warfare rhetoric and partisan pap,” Hart said. “Dr. Coburn understands how tax policy impacts short-term deficits. We look forward to working with the White House when they are ready to offer solutions.”
Gibbs said that “we have to take some serious action in order to get our fiscal house in order.”
“The president – both in the upcoming budget and throughout the year – that will be a big part of what we do”