Will Connecticut lawmakers walk off fiscal cliff?

Washington — If the White House and Republicans in Congress can come up with a deal to avoid a fiscal cliff, the vote for the compromise will be one of the toughest for members of the Connecticut delegation.

Lawmakers will have to choose between the wishes of their constituents and loyalty to party leaders or perhaps even the good of the nation.

Faced with similar pressures when Congress voted on an agreement to raise the debt limit last year, the Connecticut delegation was split.

But it’s hard to tell who will walk away this time.

“I am not going to speculate on speculation,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, when asked what would be a deal-breaker for her.

DeLauro and Reps. Chris Murphy, D-5th District and John Larson, D-1st District, voted against the debt limit deal that will impose deep, automatic budget cuts on Jan. 2 unless Congress can come up with $109 billion in savings and new revenues.

Those automatic cuts, coupled with a series of tax breaks set to expire at the end of the year, are driving the nation toward a “fiscal cliff,” economists say.

Only a budget deal will prevent the plunge. But President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are still far apart on the issue of taxes and spending.

Boehner remains steadfast in his demand that any debt increase be accompanied by an equal dollar amount of cuts. Obama is adamant about raising more money through new revenues instead of spending cuts and on letting tax breaks expire on the wealthiest 2 percent of the nation’s taxpayers, that is households earning at least $250,000 a year in income.

Boehner on Saturday offered to allow the tax rate to rise on those earning $1 million or more a year. But he still insisted on big changes to federal health and retirment programs.

As of now, neither is willing to move much closer to the others’ position and it appears the standoff will force Congress to work through Christmas.

David Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, said the vote will be toughest for both the most conservative members of the GOP and Congress’ most liberal Democrats, some of whom belong to Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

“For a deal to take place, neither side can say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ and that includes lawmakers from Connecticut,” Wasserman said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are besieged from all sides. The halls of Congress are filled with lobbyists who are trying to avoid higher taxes for their clients and spare certain programs from a looming budget ax.

When lawmakers go home, they are met with the concerns of constituents and local activists.

For example, Connecticut members of the liberal group MoveOn.org have flooded the offices of Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., with phone calls demanding that the lawmakers protect social programs and insist on a tax increase for the rich.

Amid the pressures, Connecticut lawmakers have begun to stake out their positions.

Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, Larson, DeLauro and Murphy have gone on record opposing an attempt to save money by using an accounting method that would shrink annual cost-of-living increases, the so-called “chained CPI.”

Last week, Courtney, Larson and DeLauro signed a letter to President Obama with 60 other Democrats denouncing a proposal that would raise the eligibility age for Medicare.

DeLauro is also passionate in her opposition to cuts to programs for the poor, like foods stamps and Medicaid.

“The bottom line is that we should not be balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, whether it is food stamps, health care, or Social Security,” DeLauro said.

Courtney has conceded that “a bad deal could be worse than no deal.” But he said the agreement would have to be horrible to him for him to allow the nation to plunge off the cliff.

Larson hopes the GOP caves on raising taxes on the rich, resulting in new revenues and the need for fewer savings.

He also believes a lot of money could be saved by slashing waste and inefficiency from programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and that those savings could prevent cuts in benefits to the poor and elderly.

Murphy, who has been elected to retiring Lieberman’s Senate seat in the next Congress, shares Obama’s view that the federal budget deficit needs to be reduced by $3 trillion or $4 trillion in the coming years to safeguard the nation’s economy.

He says he’s concerned about cuts that would weaken the nation’s safety net because “a lot of Connecticut families are still walking on a knife edge” due to the recession.

But Murphy said he’d consider supporting spending cuts, even those to an entitlement program like Medicare, and is “willing to make a tough and controversial vote” if the final package is “balanced.”

“Clearly, any package that comes before us is going to be pretty nasty,” Murphy said.

Lieberman remains steadfast in his opposition to any defense cuts, but has lately been optimistic that a bipartisan compromise can be reached.

Like Murphy, Blumenthal and Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, have left a lot of options open.

Himes said everything should be on the table during budget negotiation talks. Blumenthal said he’s willing to consider caps on tax deductions and other controversial measures if they’re part of a balanced package.

“There is going to be a give and take,” Blumenthal said.

If and when there’s an agreement on the budget deal, the votes of all Connecticut delegation members may not be needed, just as they were not needed on the bipartisan debt ceiling vote.

On that debt ceiling vote, GOP and Democratic leaders were able to secure enough votes from members of both parties to approve the legislation by comfortable margins in both chambers, even as 95 House Democrats and 95 House Republicans opposed it.

But right now, it’s anybody’s guess what a final deal will look like and whether the votes of the Connecticut delegation will be needed to approve it.

And although DeLauro may not like it, speculation is rampant.

Obama and Boehner may come up with an agreement that temporarily puts off the fiscal cliff and allows the new Congress — to be gaveled in Jan. 3 — to work out a final deal.

Or there may be no agreement of any kind before the end of the year, resulting in the raising of taxes and massive budget cuts, especially to the Pentagon.

Some lawmakers, including Murphy, dispute claims that a walk off the fiscal cliff would result in a stock market tumble and an immediate plunge into recession. They say a new Congress could work on a compromise that would reverse the tax hikes and automatic budget cuts without the deadline pressures of the lame duck session.

“There’s no reason we should have to have a deal on the 31st,” Murphy said.

If the new Congress is left to clean up the fiscal mess, Rep.-elect Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, will have a say — and Lieberman won’t.

Wasserman of the Cook Political Report said it may be harder to reach a compromise in the new Congress than the old Congress because there will be fewer moderates in both the House and Senate.