Local rifts over fiscal cliff mirror DC's

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Consensus on the fiscal cliff can be just as elusive in White Plains as on Capitol Hill.

At The Westchester mall in downtown White Plains, opinions varied widely, from plain dread to positions veering toward the Democratic or Republican stance on the looming budget deadline.

Meanwhile, in Washington, negotiators were narrowing their aims, suggesting that any deal to avert tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1 would be far smaller than initially envisioned.

An agreement would halt automatic, across-the-board tax increases for virtually every American and perhaps temporarily put off some steep spending cuts in defense and domestic programs.

Obama pressed lawmakers to start where both sides say they agree -- sparing middle-class families from looming tax hikes.

"If we can get that done, that takes a big bite out of the fiscal cliff," Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "It avoids the worst outcomes. And we're then going to have some tough negotiations in terms of how we continue to reduce the deficit, grow the economy, create jobs."

The negotiations were of more than passing interest to White Plains resident Carmen Rivera, a 51-year-old hospital food service worker who said higher taxes would force her to cut back on spending.

"It's going to be bad," Rivera said. "They are going to raise our taxes. It's not going to be good for the working class. It's going to be harder to pay your debts."

Jeff Pestone, 51, a computer programmer from Bronxville, said the run-up to the crisis had further soured him on government. "It's bad that we can't get together and make a deal," he said.

He said he didn't mind paying more taxes but felt the rich should contribute more.

"I do think the middle class are treated unfairly and the wealthy aren't taxed enough," he said. "That's just the way it's been."

Lisa Morris, 46, who is unemployed, said federal lawmakers have foolishly added more uncertainty to the unstable economy by bickering over the fiscal cliff.

"I'm not really sure where we are headed," she said.

She also felt wealthy households should pay more taxes.

"It seems the rich are getting richer, the poor are suffering more and the middle class are taking the brunt of it because the Republicans don't want the rich to pay more," Morris said. "It's a mess."

But Bob Zaragoza, a 67-year-old retired business owner who lives in White Plains, disagreed. He said Republicans should not back down in negotiations with Obama, whom he viewed as naive and irresponsible.

"They should go over the cliff so Obama doesn't get his way," Zaragoza said. "They need to cut spending. They should be talking about entitlements, not taxes. Obama inherited a bad situation and he's made it worse."

Higher taxes on the rich would harm the economy, Zaragoza said. "If they raise my taxes, I'm going to stop giving to charities," he said.

Negotiators in Washington have abandoned talk of a grand deal that would tackle broad spending and revenue demands and set the nation on a course to lower deficits. Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) were once a couple hundred billion dollars apart of a deal that would have reduced the deficit by more than $2 trillion over 10 years.

Republican and Democratic negotiators in the Senate were hoping for a deal as early as Sunday on what threshold to set for increased tax rates, whether to keep current inheritance tax rates and exemptions and how to pay for jobless benefits and avoid cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. Senate leaders were hoping to be able to present their members with a plan when the parties meet separately on Capitol Hill on Sunday afternoon.

Republicans have complained that Obama has demanded too much in tax revenue and hasn't proposed sufficient cuts or savings in the nation's massive health care programs.

Obama increased the pressure on Republicans to negotiate a fiscal deal, arguing that GOP leaders have rejected his past attempts to strike a bigger and more comprehensive bargain.

"The offers that I've made to them have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me," Obama said.

The interview was taped Saturday while aides to the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were engaged in negotiations in the Capitol in hopes of having something to present senators as early as Sunday.

Even if negotiators reach a deal on the fiscal cliff, however, experts warn that taxes are almost certain to rise.

Phil Lieb, a White Plains accountant, said that capital gains taxes, paid on appreciation in stocks, bonds and property, will rise. Another good bet: Payroll taxes will increase. A payroll tax cut of 2 percentage points to 4.2 percent expires Monday after two years, and negotiators are expected to let the tax revert to 6.2 percent.

With The Associated Press


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