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Persuading Vulnerable Senate Dems on Obama’s Deficit Plan Could Be Tough

Obama’s Tax Increase Could Be a Tough Sell

Washington — Senate Democrats, cautiously optimistic about prospects for a deficit-reduction deal, may have to contend with wariness from seven members who face 2014 re-election campaigns in states Mitt Romney won Nov. 6.

Some of those seven Democrats, including North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, say they aren’t ready to commit to President Barack Obama’s proposals for boosting tax revenue. Instead, Hagan isn’t ruling out support for extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for top earners. Landrieu said she opposes eliminating tax breaks for oil companies.

Possible Democratic defections heighten the need for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to woo Republican support for a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff — $607 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to begin taking effect in January. Lame-duck Republican Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana are potential candidates.

“I think that we have what we call complicated math here,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.

The 60-vote threshold for advancing major legislation in the Senate presents a hurdle for any fiscal agreement. Electoral pressures in the Senate — where Democrats will defend 20 seats in 2014, compared with 13 for Republicans — are among the dynamics that make counting votes complicated. Democrats control the chamber 53-47 and will gain two seats in January.

Hagan said her priority in evaluating a deficit-reduction plan will be the needs of her state, not necessarily what her party leaders want. She won her seat in 2008 when Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

“I need to be looking at what’s important in North Carolina, and you better believe that’s what I will do,” Hagan said.

Pressed on whether she could be persuaded to support the Republican position of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels, Hagan said, “I want to look at the whole package, but I definitely want to protect the middle-class taxpayer, first and foremost.”

The Senate in July passed legislation extending the Bush-era tax cuts only for individual income up to $200,000 a year and married couples’ income up to $250,000. Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Virginia Democrat Jim Webb joined Republicans in opposing that measure. Neither sought re-election this year.

Landrieu said in an interview last week she would consider supporting changes to tax breaks for oil and gas companies only as part of a broad tax-code rewrite next year. She said she wouldn’t vote to curb the tax breaks “for putting more revenues on the table” as part of a late-year budget deal.

“They are not an ATM machine to stop the deficit problem,” Landrieu said.

Besides Hagan and Landrieu, the Democrats up for re- election in 2014 in states Romney won are Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’s Mark Pryor, South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and Montana’s Max Baucus.

As chairman of the Finance Committee, Baucus would be hard-pressed to oppose a deal that Obama reaches with Republicans. Still, Baucus said in an interview last week that he would work hard to ensure rural states aren’t harmed.

“My job is to make sure that Montana and rural states are represented at the table, in the room,” Baucus said, adding, “John Boehner’s from Cincinnati, the president’s from Chicago.”

“So it’s very important for me to make sure that Montana and western states are protected,” Baucus said. Of those Democrats in Republican-leaning states who seek re-election in 2014, Duffy predicted some of the most vulnerable will get opportunities for political cover from party leaders.

“There will be some people who will be asked to sort of take one for the team and others who will be given a pass,” Duffy said.

Complicating matters further, some Senate Republicans who have been most vocal about wanting a bipartisan deal — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine — are up for re-election in 2014. They may be concerned that siding with Democrats on a deficit-reduction deal could leave them vulnerable to a Tea Party challenge, Duffy said.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the Republican leadership, said Democrats’ votes on a potential budget deal this year may affect their electoral fortunes in 2014.

“I would think so,” Barrasso said. “Every senator makes their own decisions about what they think is best for the country and how it impacts their own political future.”

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