No, Sen. Schumer, compromise is not a dirty word

As this page has devoted much ink to criticizing Republicans in Congress for hardening their positions on matters of federal tax and budget policy to the point where compromise is impossible, it is beyond disappointing to see a leading Senate Democrat engaging in similar behavior. Whether it's equivalent or not, Sen. Charles E. Schumer went too far this week when he rejected any possibility of lower tax rates for the wealthy.

Mind you, we understand where Senator Schumer is coming from. It's hard to see how real deficit reduction is achieved without significant sacrifice from all Americans, and that includes the top 1 percent, the folks the GOP so often like to coddle as the "investment class." But reducing rates while closing tax loopholes and limiting deductions can, at least in theory, enhance government revenue; the devil is simply in the details.

It's one thing for Mitt Romney to make his fantastic claims of how he can achieve a sweeping 20 percent tax rate reduction for everyone without committing himself to any serious offset, as he has done in the current campaign. That's the $5 trillion tax cut that Mr. Romney denies will cost a thing but which actual economists and reality-based budget experts see differently.

It's quite another to reject any possibility of using loophole-closing to reduce rates. That may not be how Democrats would like to attack the deficit, but it's not out of left (or in this case, right) field either. The Simpson-Bowles deficit commission suggested something similar. Democrats ought not adopt the equivalent of a tea party mentality that sees compromise as a dirty word. It's pretty clear that too few Republicans in Congress can stomach a revenue increase of any type for serious deficit reduction to go forward unless some involved (Democrats most likely) are willing to bend a little bit.

Make no mistake, the looming "fiscal cliff" is serious business, and it's been heartening in recent days to hear that a bipartisan group of senators has been meeting in private to hash out a possible deficit reduction strategy. It's possible those talks could produce a plan that might prevent or delay the sweeping tax increases and spending cuts that are set to begin at the start of the new year.

The only thing the two sides seem to agree upon is that the fiscal cliff could spell disaster for the nation's economy. Estimates vary, but the combination of suddenly higher taxes and lowered government spending at a time when the U.S. still hasn't fully recovered from the last recession could plunge it into another major downturn.

And the clock is ticking. The lame duck Congress may not have enough time to devise an alternative after the Nov. 6 election unless progress on the plan is made now.

It's not hard to understand why Senator Schumer chose to speak out one month prior to the election. As the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, he likely felt an obligation to remind voters that his party holds the interests of the middle class as a paramount concern. If Congress eventually chooses to lower tax rates for the rich, it could put even more pressure to cut government programs that benefit the middle class.

That, to use a favorite GOP phrase, amounts to class warfare and revenue redistribution. Only in this case, it's taking it out of the pockets of people earning $50,000 a year and giving it to those who earn $500,000 or more. And even if the proposal ends up revenue-neutral, it's not likely to reduce the deficit, the goal Republicans claim to have.

The problem for Mr. Schumer, however, is that while expecting more from the rich plays well in blue states like New York, it's probably not helpful to the process any more than taking the opposite stand. What Americans really want, or at least ought to want, is a solution to the problem, not a bunch of posturing.

As much as the deficit has grown under President Barack Obama, Mr. Romney's Fantasy Land tax and spending plans lack credibility to the point that the issue actually serves the incumbent. If, however, the nation hears that members of the president's party are obstructionists in tax reform talks, that view could easily change. Democrats don't necessarily have to brag about their centrist tendencies prior to the election, but they ought not abandon them in the middle of important negotiations either.