Thune notes mood for compromiseEntitlement reform must accompany any tax increases, Republican senator says.
By: Denise Ross, The Daily Republic
Congressional Republicans are ready to make a deal with the White House and congressional Democrats in order to avoid the looming fiscal cliff, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Wednesday.
Reform of entitlement programs including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security top the GOP's demands going into negotiations, he said, saying any deal without that will be worthless.
"If he (President Obama) wants to come to the table, Republicans are willing to meet him there," Thune said. "But it can't be a function of just raising taxes. It's got to involve addressing the drivers of our deficit and our debt; the entitlement programs are unsustainable in their current form."
Republicans are open to generating more tax revenue, Thune said, particularly in taking away "loopholes, deductions and exemptions." Raising the top personal income tax rate from 35 percent to over 39 percent will be "a really hard sell with Republicans in both the House and Senate," he said.
While Obama has said raising that top tax rate is his top priority, Thune said congressional Republicans worry that doing so will damage a "fragile economy."
"Whatever we do with changes to tax policy ought to be proposals that create growth. It ought to be focused economic growth and job creation," Thune said. "If we do something in the context of tax reform that generates new revenue and is accompanied by entitlement reform, there's a deal there."
Another priority of Thune's is to stave off any change in the so-called "death tax," or federal estate tax. He wants to keep the provision that exempts all estates of less than $5 million but worries it could revert to the previous exemption limit of $1 million. While that limit used to affect a small segment of the population, booming farmland prices have changed that landscape, he said.
"Back in 2001, only 19 percent of cropland in South Dakota would have been impacted. This year, over 70 percent would be impacted," Thune said. "Addressing that is really important to South Dakota's economy and to the agriculture economy more generally. It would be tragic if the death tax reverts to the $1 million exemption."
As Congress works to steer the nation away from the fiscal cliff during the lame-duck session before year's end, some also are working to pass a farm bill. Thune said the Senate-passed farm bill includes $23 billion in savings over 10 years and could help address the fiscal cliff should the House choose to pass it.
"House leadership said they would come to a decision this week on how to address the farm bill," Thune said.
Thune said he wants a new, five-year farm bill before year's end. He worries that putting it off until a new Congress is sworn in in 2013 could lead to a weakened crop insurance program.
An extension of the "current" farm bill, which expired at the end of September, should include livestock disaster assistance to help ranchers deal with this year's drought, Thune said.
"The South Dakota agriculture industry is very eager to get a five-year farm bill signed into law. I believe that's the most effective way to deal wtih the effects of this year's drought and to strengthen the crop insurance program," Thune said.
Senate leadership post
Thune made more news Wednesday when he was
re-elected chairman of the Senate Republican Conference by his fellow Republican senators.
Thune was originally elected to the post in December 2011, but officially assumed the position of Senate Republican Conference chairman in January when Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., stepped down from the position.
The chairman of the Senate Republican Conference is the number three leadership position for Senate Republicans and is tasked with spearheading messaging efforts for the conference.
"I thank my Republican Senate colleagues for again electing me to serve as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference," Thune said. "Our country is at a critical point and the stakes have never been higher. As our conference works to address the major challenges facing our nation, including the fiscal cliff, rampant unemployment, and the crippling debt, we also stand ready and willing to work across the aisle in order to meet these challenges. I will continue to work hard to ensure that issues important to our nation and to South Dakota, like agriculture, transportation, and defense are brought to the forefront of policy discussions, and that Republicans help shape the national conversation to make the case for these and other South Dakota priorities."
Prior to being elected to the post, Thune served as chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee and as vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. The Senate Republican Conference helps senators communicate their priorities to the American people through a wide variety of communications resources, including television, radio, and web technology, among other services.
Thune also celebrated passage of his bill to prevent the European Union from taxing American flights. The bill now awaits President Obama's signature.
Currently, all international flights operating to and from the EU, including flights into and out of U.S. airspace, are included in the EU Emissions Trading System.
The bill would prevent the EU from adding a tax on flights traveling through U.S. and international airspace and was passed by the House of Representatives Tuesday. It had passed the Senate in September.
Thune, who is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee, called the proposed EU tax an "unprecedented overreach" and said he was glad to hear news that the EU is postponing its plan to levy any such tax for a year.
"That doesn't rule out future efforts to tax foreign carriers," Thune said. "The tax is an assault on American sovereignty."