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Johnson said he could support dramatic tax change, perhaps with creative triggers attached that could help bridge the divide between the parties and generate new revenue.
“You could have triggers ... I’d certainly be open to that,” he said. He also said that if a far simpler tax code can be written that reduces the massive costs of complying with the existing code, he’d support the government getting some of those savings.
But Johnson said Republicans feel they already gave ground in the fiscal-cliff debate. “I think he kind of recognizes that,” he said of the president.
The party’s base, meanwhile, is suspicious of the optimism following the dinner, with many on Twitter questioning senators for dining with Obama, and conservative groups warning lawmakers not to go wobbly on taxes.
“The only reason for optimism is if the President promised that tax increases are completely off the table,” Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, said in a statement. “A fine dining experience with the President of the United States may be enjoyable, but until he jettisons his flawed, economically damaging approach to deficit reduction, there is little reason for excitement.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has been urging the president for years to start talking to lawmakers, also expressed new hope.
“We’ve grown exhausted talking to each other. ... We need Moses to lead us, that’s what presidents are supposed to do,” he said, suggesting that tackling the debt could be Obama’s “Nixon-to-China” moment.
And Alexander dismissed the idea that grass-roots conservatives would punish senators for dining with the president. “Conservatives in Tennessee want to fix the debt,” he said. “You can’t fix the debt unless the president leads the way. And for him to lead the way, there are going to have to be these conversations.”
The president’s outreach, meanwhile, made some on the left nervous that once again he might, in their eyes, give up too much to the GOP.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., has already ripped the president for being willing to cut Social Security and veterans benefits by adopting a stingier gauge of inflation.
“The president historically has not been a strong negotiator,” he said. “The fear is he is going to get a deal that will probably not be strong enough on revenue — that does worry some of us.”
And liberal Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he is not worried about where the president’s heart is, but he is “concerned about his advisers — and their commitment to our Democratic priorities and whether they are willing to — in order to reach some kind of agreement — to pitch some of those over the side. ... I cast no aspersions on anyone, but when you go from Wall Street to here to Wall Street to here you get a distorted view of the world.”