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Obama may delay Hawaiian vacation over tax fight

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
  • Obama may delay his departure for Hawaii if a deal is not reached on taxes
  • He and his family are schedule to leave on December 18
  • He delayed his departure until Christmas Eve last year because of health reform

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama is considering at least a short delay to the start of his holiday vacation in Hawaii so he can try to work out a deal with congressional Republicans on the Bush tax cuts that expire December 31, CNN has learned.

Two senior administration officials tell CNN the White House has been getting signals that the lame duck session of Congress could drag on past December 18, when the president is scheduled to depart for Hawaii.

Obama has privately said he is willing to stay in Washington until Christmas Eve if necessary to finish the contentious debate over taxes, the officials said.

While administration officials do not expect that Obama will have to stay in town until Christmas Eve, which he did last year because of health care reform, they believe there could be a delay of at least a couple of days.

The reason is that Democrats and Republicans have made little progress in the tax debate so far, and White House aides went into Tuesday's long-awaited "Slurpee Summit" believing that both parties will need a lot more negotiating time beyond this one meeting to come up with a compromise.

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Senior Republican aides scoffed at the idea that a tax cut deal could not be worked out before December 17, suggesting that perhaps the White House talk of a vacation delay may just be a negotiating ploy to push Republicans into a quick compromise since they have vacations waiting for them as well.

"There is absolutely no need for that," a senior Republican aide said of a possible delay of an end to the lame-duck session. "Once they make a decision, it's done in a couple days. I hope it doesn't take the Democrats until Christmas to make up their minds."

At issue is whether the current tax rates should be extended just for families earning $250,000 or under per year, or should be extended to include Americans with income above $250,000 a year.

In the midterm election, Republicans hammered the message that failing to extend the Bush tax rates for wealthy Americans would hamper the already-slow economic recovery. Obama staked out the position that only the middle class tax rates should be extended because extending tax cuts will result in a huge drain on the federal treasury.

"The last thing we can afford to do right now is raise taxes on middle-class families," Obama said at an event in Kokomo, Indiana, on November 23. "If we allow these taxes to go up, the result would be that a lot of people most likely would spend less, and that means that the economy would grow less. So we ought to resolve this issue in the next couple of weeks so you've got the assurance that your taxes won't go up when that clock strikes midnight."

The president and his aides have also signaled since the election that he might be open to a compromise on a one-year or two-year extension on the tax rates for the wealthy if the tax rates for the middle class were permanently extended.

But in remarks on the Senate floor before Tuesday's summit meeting at the White House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took a hard line in suggesting that his party will accept only extending all of the tax rates, including those for the highest-paid Americans, without caveats.

"We've heard a lot of chatter here in Washington lately about the negotiations that are expected to take place on this looming tax hike in the weeks ahead -- on how to prevent it," McConnell said. "How about we start with this: the beginning and end of any negotiations shouldn't be what's good for any political party. It should be what's good for the economy and for the American people. And if we leave the politics aside, if we look at the facts, the answer here is simple: no tax hikes on anybody -- period."

Last year, Obama and his family remained in Washington until the Senate finally passed health care reform legislation on Christmas Eve. They left for Obama's home state of Hawaii a few hours later.

The president, first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters are again planning to go to Hawaii for a vacation that will last until the beginning of January.