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Ex-President Clinton apologizes for tax comments

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton said Thursday he’s “very sorry” for comments that appeared to undermine President Barack Obama’s position on extending George W. Bush-era tax cuts, chalking it up to a misunderstanding over when lawmakers needed to act ahead of a looming “fiscal cliff.”

Appearing on CNN’s “The Situation Room” from Chicago, where he’s holding a major event for his Clinton Global Initiative, the former president repeatedly expressed “regret” about comments that Republicans had quickly circulated this week amid debate over tax rates set to expire at year’s end.

“I was under the impression that something needed to happen before the election,” Clinton said of his comments on CNBC Tuesday that he would temporarily extend all of the Bush tax cuts.

Congress is unlikely to deal with the issue until a lame-duck session after the presidential and congressional elections.

Obama and congressional Democrats want to extend the rates for the middle class but not for couples earning $250,000 or more.

“I support (Obama’s) position. I’m very sorry about what happened,” Clinton repeated on CNN. “He should just stick with his position and negotiate with the Republicans when possible.”

Clinton said he favors extending the current rates for the bottom 98 percent of Americans, while letting rates on the remaining 2 percent return to levels that were in effect through most of his administration. That’s squarely in line with the current White House position, which press secretary Jay Carney repeated Thursday.

“(Obama) would sign tomorrow a bill that permanently extended the tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people, for all middle-class Americans,” Carney told reporters traveling with the president to Nevada.

Clinton said it was imperative to maintain lower rates for the middle class to avoid contracting the economy, since their wages have been flat for much of the last decade as other costs increased. Raising taxes on upper-income Americans is key to a balanced strategy for debt reduction, Clinton added.

The Obama campaign has seemed to be mired in an endless news cycle about leading surrogates straying from message. Comments from Clinton, this week on the tax issue and a week earlier on GOP rival Mitt Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, have proved the most tempting for Republicans to try to exploit.

The former president told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he was “strongly committed” to Obama’s re-election, recent controversies notwithstanding.

“Look, in 2008 when he ran for president and defeated Hillary (Rodham Clinton) in the primaries, I did 40 events for him, 40, in the election,” Clinton said. “In 2012, I have done these major fundraisers, I have spoken up for him whenever I could, I have told people repeatedly, I think he’s done a good job — a really good job — under very trying circumstances, and better than some people give him credit for.”

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