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Senator prods Gang of 8 to make middle class, deficit-cutting top priorities

As bipartisan talks to avoid a 'fiscal cliff' renew this week, a top Senate Democratic leader, Charles Schumer, warns negotiators that any plan that aims to cut taxes on the rich and also cut deficits is 'a trap,' and won't add up.

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In short, entitlement reform. While Schumer said he would not offer specific changes to the Democratic totems of Medicare and Social Security – and although he criticized Republicans for not being specific in saying which tax preferences they would eliminate in their own plans – he said time and again that his goal was to cut a deal and that, when the time came, Democrats would be more than willing to do so.

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“Make no mistake about it, Democrats are willing to do serious entitlement reform providing we keep the safety net,” Schumer said. “There’s going to be tough medicine, [and] we’re willing to swallow it.”

That political tangle – wrangling entitlement reform from Democrats, higher taxes from Republicans – has been the snare holding back a resolution to the more than $600 billion in higher taxes and lower government spending set to hit the US economy come Jan. 1.

As recently as last month, Schumer joined with 28 other Senate Democrats in pledging to reject any changes to Social Security, as part of a deficit-reduction plan. But on Tuesday, he said that he would put nothing out of bounds. 

"I'm not taking anything off the table," he said.

Meanwhile, a group of eight senators led by Mark Warner (D) of Virginia has been working to build a bipartisan deal for nearly two years along just such lines. These include Sens. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy majority leader; Michael Bennet (D) of Colorado; and retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota; along with Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.

Pressure on Congress to get a deal is mounting not only from businesses and consumers unsure of Washington's taxing and spending priorities come Jan. 1, but also from international economic groups, as well. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday scaled back its estimates for the growth of the world economy to 3.3 percent, down from 3.5 percent in July, adding that if the US fails to deal with its "fiscal cliff," the risk of falling back into recession will be even greater.

With the clock ticking down to year's end, Schumer said he has discussed his views with the bipartisan debt group long before.

But while he believes Congress can come to an agreement during the lame-duck period after the November election, he aired his theory publicly to emphasize what he sees as the fundamental intellectual turning point to getting past the impasse that has blocked a deal thus far.

Negotiators have to realize, Schumer said, that there’s no unicorn.

“These promises of lower rates amount to little more than happy talk when the math behind them doesn’t add up,” Schumer said.

Later, he added: “This is the trap of tax reform, and we must not fall for it. It is an alluring prospect to cut taxes on the wealthiest people, reduce the deficit, and hold the middle class harmless, but the math dictates you can’t have it all.”

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