By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 12/19/2010 9:27:45 AM ET 2010-12-19T14:27:45

Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" Sunday that the compromise tax-and-unemployment benefits package that President Obama signed into law last week was a matter of pragmatism.

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The president chose to "compromise to save people who are drowning," Biden said to NBC’s David Gregory. "There’s people out there drowning. There are two million people this month that can’t afford to go get a Christmas tree, let alone buy any gifts, because their unemployment has run out…."

Biden described Obama as "a progressive leader" who understands that politics is "all about the possible."

Still thinks taxes too low for upper-income people
The vice president said that he and Obama still believe that the lower 2001 tax rates for higher-income earners that Obama agreed to extend for two years are "morally troubling" to quote a phrase Obama used in his book, "The Audacity of Hope". But, Biden explained, "Life is a matter of really tough choices."

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Biden insisted that the president would come back in 2012 and make the case that the 2001 tax rates for upper-income people ought to be scrapped and that they ought to pay higher taxes.

“We will be able to make the case much more clearly that spending $700 billion over 10 years to extend tax cuts for people whose income averages well over a million dollars does not make sense,” the vice president contended. He said the fiscal commission headed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles had recently helped make that point in its call for deficit and debt reduction.

He argued that economic growth is likely to be stronger in 2012 than today so a tax-and-spending accord of the kind Obama signed into law last week won’t be necessary.

Tradeoff may be necessary on earmarks
In another example of what he portrayed as necessary pragmatism, Biden told Gregory that Obama might in some cases decide to sign spending bills which include specific earmarks he disapproves of. “If the question is in order to keep the patient alive, we have to use a medicine we don’t like, we may have to do it,” Biden said.

He added, “If we say we have to support a levee in Mississippi in order to make sure my kid who’s out in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan gets what he needs, I’m gonna say, ‘yeah, I don’t want to do it. But I may have to do it.’ It depends on the proportions. It depends on what’s at stake.”

On another topic, Biden implied that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange might face legal jeopardy for his role in making confidential U.S. government documents available to news media organizations.

Wikileaks Assange facing legal jeopardy?
“If he conspired to get these classified documents with a member of the U.S. military, that’s fundamentally different than if somebody drops on your lap here, David, you’re a press person, ‘Here is classified material,’” Biden said.

Gregory pointed out that Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell said Assange is “a high-tech terrorist,” while others say his document release was more like the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of decision-making in the Vietnam War. “Where do you come down?” Gregory asked

“I would argue that it’s closer to being high-tech terrorist than to the Pentagon Papers,” Biden replied.

“This guy has done things that have damaged and put in jeopardy the lives and occupations of people in other parts of the world,” he said. “He’s made it more difficult for us to conduct our business with our allies and our friends. For example, in my meetings, you know I meet with most of these world leaders.  There is a desire now to meet with me alone rather than have staff in the room.  It makes things more cumbersome. And so it has done damage.”

Biden comments were a slight change in emphasis from what he said in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell last week. “I don't think there's any substantive damage,” as a result of the Wikileaks disclosures, he told Mitchell. He acknowledged that “some of the cables that are coming out here and around the world are embarrassing,” but they have contained “nothing that I am aware of that goes to the essence of the relationship” between the U.S. and foreign governments.

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Video: Biden: Tax cuts for wealthy still ‘morally troubling’

  1. Transcript of: Biden: Tax cuts for wealthy still ‘morally troubling’

    MR. GREGORY: Good to have you here. And it's an important time. The end of the week saw you and the president closing a very important deal, this compromise over an extension of the Bush -era tax cuts , a bill signing at the White House , striking in that you had a Republican there...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: ... Mitch McConnell , for the first time . So a new era, perhaps, in Washington . The bottom line is the focus on getting people back to work. What does this deal mean to the end of that goal?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: This means two things. Number one, every econometric model, every basic economist out there says, look, this is going to grow the economy faster next year than it would have. The projections are instead of the economy growing at a -- the GDP growing at a roughly 2.5 percent, some suggest it would grow as high as 4 percent. That means employment. That means more people employed, number one. Number two, this wasn't just extending the Bush -era tax cuts . It extended all the tax cuts for the middle class and all the tax cuts for the poor that were in our legislation, the Obama legislation. We came up with a tax cut of two percent for everybody who gets a payroll check, and on their -- not the employer, the employee gets a two percent. For example, someone making $60 grand a year is going to get another $1,200 on top of the middle -class tax cut . We continued all those tax cuts for the working poor, the so-called EITC , earned income tax credits, and maybe most importantly, were able to extend for another 13 months unemployment insurance for those devastated by this recession.

    MR. GREGORY: What about the prospect of eliminating uncertainty? In what may be the first salvo of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney said, "Look, this really doesn't solve the problem. This is not good for the economy because businesses understand that in a couple of years these rates are going back up."

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. Look , here's the -- businesses don't care about the top-end tax cut except those people making a million bucks. They're the ones that care. What the businesses care about are the extension of all of those tax cuts for business that we extended, the so-called extenders. For example, we provided for 100 percent expensing. The guy run -- runs a contracting company, he goes buy a $50,000 backhoe, he can expense it in one year now. That's going to encourage him to go out, invest, buy, build. And so all of those we hope we're going to be able to continue. The one target for us in two years is no longer extending the upper income tax credit for millionaires and billionaires, and scaling back what we had to do to get the compromise, the estate tax for the very wealthy.

    MR. GREGORY: But the president has said he thinks he can win this argument on the merits in...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: I think he can.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, then why not do it now? Why wait until 2012 , an election year? Do you really expect, in an election year, that anybody's not going to vote to extend the tax cuts ?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah, I do. I do.

    MR. GREGORY: What'll be different?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, I think what'll be different is that we will have had the outcome of the deficit commission, we will be able to make the case much more clearly that spending $700 billion over 10 years to extend tax cuts for people whose income averages well over a million dollars does not make sense, number one. Number two, we're not going to be -- we're not in a position, David , where we're going to have, God willing , the shaky economy where we could not afford to continue uncertainty for a month or two or three in the next year had we not made a deal which would actually grow the economy . The, the obverse was equally as true. Had we kicked this into next year, it would have created such uncertainty, and there are a number of economists who thought that it would -- may, in fact, induce a double-dip recession. So we not only avoided it getting worse, we made it -- the prospects much better for the economy .

    MR. GREGORY: The, the irony of achieving this tax deal is that it does represent a broken promise by this president in how he campaigned, and how you campaigned as well. In September you were interviewed by my colleague Rachel Maddow , and you had an exchange about this fight over extending the tax cut for wealthier Americans. Let me play a portion of that.

    MS. RACHEL MADDOW: Does that mean that letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the richest people in the country while pushing for their extension, a middle -class tax cut for everybody else, is that a black and white issue? Is that a -- we haven't heard a veto threat, for example, from the president on that.

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: No, it, it is a black and white ...

    MS. MADDOW: Is -- it's a black and white issue. That's something that the administration's going to go to the mat for.

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: It's a black and white issue. Yes, absolutely.

    MR. GREGORY: That was September.

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: By the way, we did...

    MR. GREGORY: By January, you didn't go to the mat.

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: By the -- we did go to the mat. We did go to the mat. We went through every -- I went into a total of 130 races out there campaigning for Democrats . Every single race I made this case. Here's what happened. We got to the end, we couldn't get it done, and we had

    to make a decision: Were we going to let the middle -class tax cuts expire? Let me remind everybody, the House passed middle -class tax cut only. It got to the United States Senate , we supported that provision, and the Senate could not pass it. So now we're left with, do we let those folks who are going to bed tonight staring at a ceiling wondering whether they're going to be in that same bed next month, or those two million people who already lost their unemployment insurance this month, seven million more losing it next month, and economic uncertainty occur? Life is a matter of really tough choices.

    MR. GREGORY: The president wrote in " Audacity of Hope " that he found the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy morally troubling.

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: They are.

    MR. GREGORY: Is that still his belief?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: It's still his belief.

    MR. GREGORY: Your belief as well?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Mine as well.

    MR. GREGORY: But you're willing to compromise on that?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Look, it's -- the idea -- to compromise to save people who are drowning -- there's people out there drowning. There are two million people this month that can't afford to go get a Christmas tree , let alone buy any gifts, because their unemployment has run out, which means they've been unemployed for well over a year to two years. It is unfortunate we were put in the position where the Republicans made it clear they were ready to let everything fall unless they got these tax cuts . They're for two years. They're for two years, and we're coming back and going at it again.

    MR. GREGORY: Can you be thought of as being serious about cutting the deficit when 80 -- within 80 hours of, of announcing the deficit commission's proposals this administration agrees to add a trillion dollars to the deficit ?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Absolutely, positively. Look what the deficit commission suggested. They suggested we do exactly what we did. They suggested we have a payroll tax . They suggested that we stimulate the economy this year into next year. They suggested that this has no impact on long-term debt because it's for two years. Look, you know this, the only people who are going to agree with me when I say this are the economists listening, left, right and center. In the middle of a recession, where we're just climbing out of it, where the economy -- unemployment is still at 9.7 percent, the idea of raising taxes and reducing spending is a prescription for disaster. No one is suggesting that.

    MR. GREGORY: Is the balance -- to that point, do we think the balance is out of whack? There's so much attention on austerity...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: ...on cutting the deficit . And yet, Larry Summers , the president's outgoing top economic adviser...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: ...saying, look, at this particular moment in time, the priority next year should be more spending. You're the shovel-ready projects guy. There should be more investment in infrastructure. Should there, should there be more of that before we really focus on bringing down the deficit ?

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: We can do both. Let me explain what I mean. In the budget we submitted and the omnibus or the, or the, the, the -- I'm sorry to sound like a senator here, or a wonk. But in the spending proposal for next year, we freeze discretionary spending . Freeze it. Freeze it. We think we have to start by all those things that have tails on them, the long-term impact, we should not be spending in those areas and we should be freezing or reducing. On those issues that have no long-term deficit -- look, the entire recovery bill -- I know you know this, but the entire recovery act of the last 18 months, over roughly $800 billion, you know how much it added to the long-term debt? Two-tenths of one percent to GDP . Two-tenths of one percent. The places where we have to go are those things that have tails, that are long-term commitments to the government. That's where the problem is, and that's what we have to attack.

    MR. GREGORY: You brought up spending and I want to talk about this earmark issue, not to sound wonkish, these are the pet projects that lawmakers...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: No. Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: ...put into the budget ; and you had a lot of back and forth here, and ultimately Democrats had a defeat. They pulled back their big spending bill, eliminated the earmarks . And yet, Harry Reid , the leader of the Democrats , took on the White House , wasn't

    happy with all of this and said this, this week: I am convinced that I do not want to give up more power to the White House , whether it's George Bush or Barack Obama. And I 'm going to fight as hard as I can against President Obama on these earmarks and my Republican colleagues who hate to vote for them, but love to get them.

    SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): Bottom line is, if there is some temporary measure to keep the government funded, will the president down the road veto a bill that includes earmarks or not?

    MR. GREGORY: David , if the question is, in order to keep the patient alive, we have to use medicine we don't like, we may have to do it. I'm not going to second -- if...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: But the president said he regretted when he's done that in the past.

    MR. GREGORY: Well...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: He regretted signing a bill with earmarks ...

    MR. GREGORY: Well...

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: ...and that after the election it was a new day.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, look, in this budget that was -- is being debated for -- to keep the government running for the next month and year, there is a freeze in discretionary spending . Also, there is an increase in spending for our troops that are in the middle of a war. Those two things we think are essential. Now, if you say to me, do we have to accept a project in -- and by the way, there were six Republican appropriators who supported this who had earmarks in it. If we say we have to support a, a levy in Mississippi in order to make sure my kid, who's out in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan gets what he needs, I'm going to say yeah. I don't want to do it, but I may have to do it. It depends on the proportions. It depends on what to say. Harry just reinforced the point we've been making. We don't like earmarks . You have the Democratic leader criticizing the president of the United States because we say we don't want earmarks .

    VICE PRES. BIDEN: So, so you may not like it, but there's no veto threat.

    MR. GREGORY: No, there -- it depends on the proportion. It could be very well that you wind up in a situation where you say, "OK, in order to be able to have the funding for the continuation, the support for the troops in Afghanistan , we have to accept an earmark, and that's what the Congress sends us." Are we going to veto a bill that will jeopardize troop safety? Probably not. Conversely, if there's a bunch of earmarks in a bill that we think is funding for several agencies that we're willing to fight over and can take a chance on losing on, yeah, we'll veto.

    VICE PRES. BIDEN:

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