Fairfield County a fault line in Bush tax cut battle

At epicenter of the fiscal battle: Fairfield County split politically, economically

Fairfield County is once again at the center of a political and economic fault line, this time over whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 for the wealthiest Americans.

President Barack Obama wants to preserve the tax cuts for the middle class but eliminate them for families with a household income greater than $250,000, returning in 2013 to the marginal rates under President Bill Clinton.

In this economically disparate corner of the state, Republicans got territorial Monday over the much-criticized tax cuts, which were the subject of an election year speech by Obama in the East Room of the White House.

"For the government to be raising taxes now rather than be focusing on reducing spending is, I think, fool's work," said Tom Foley, a Greenwich Republican who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010.

A former U.S. ambassador to Ireland under President George W. Bush who is a supporter of Mitt Romney, Foley called for the tax cuts to be extended across the board.

"He's halfway there," Foley said of Obama. "At least he's acknowledging these tax cuts are a good thing for middle-income households. I also think they're a good thing for households earning over $250,000."

Democrats from this part of the state rushed to back the president, questioning whether the nation can continue to afford to pay for tax breaks for the rich.

"I support extending tax cuts for the middle class, so that hard working families across Connecticut below certain income levels pay no higher tax rates," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Greenwich Time in a statement. "Extending those rates for middle class families is also vital to economic recovery at this critical moment. I look forward to a future debate on the wealthiest Americans paying their fair share and, more broadly, comprehensive tax reform. My focus -- and I hope that of Congress -- will be providing certainty and security to middle class families so their taxes won't increase in six months."

Former GOP U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, now a candidate for Senate, accused the president of engaging in "class warfare" to get re-elected.

"All he's doing is dividing our country," Shays said in an interview.

If the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire for those at the top of the income scale, Shays said the 4th Congressional District that he used to represent before he was unseated by Greenwich Democrat Jim Himes in 2008 is in for a beating.

"The 4th Congressional District pays the highest taxes in the country," Shays said. "I remember (Himes) in our campaign saying that people in Connecticut should pay more taxes."

A spokeswoman for Himes, whose district includes most of Fairfield County and a sliver of New Haven County, said that Shays' rhetoric doesn't match the record of the two-term incumbent.

"It's too bad Chris Shays couldn't rise above partisan politics on this issue the way the congressman did when he joined 16 Republicans and 21 other Democrats to support the Simpson-Bowles budget plan, which reduces the tax rate and the federal deficit and according to USA Today is what `every non-partisan budget expert and every realistic politician in Washington knows Congress will have to do to solve the budget problem,'" Liz Kerr wrote in an email on behalf of Himes.

Ned Lamont, a wealthy cable television executive from Greenwich who ran for both Senate and governor, called for the partisan bickering to come to an end.

"Whatever the politics of it, I think people want some permanent solutions, and that's real tax reform," Lamont said by phone. "Having another one-year fix just prolongs the uncertainty and the agony. So put real long-term tax reform on the table and let the Republicans respond."

Republican Linda McMahon, the favorite to win the August Senate primary against Shays, issued a statement to the media saying that she opposes raising taxes on anyone in the current climate.

"President Obama and I agree that Congress must extend the current tax rates for the middle class," McMahon said. "Last week's jobs numbers reminded us that no matter what career politicians may say, our economy is still sluggish and middle-class families are hurting. We should not be raising taxes on anyone right now."

Both U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who represents the 5th Congressional District, and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who are vying for the Democratic Senate nomination, reiterated their support for extending the tax cuts for the middle class, while asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a little bit more.

Shays railed on McMahon as not being much different than Obama, saying that her economic revival plan doesn't go as far as his to simplify the tax code and grow wealth.

"My opponent is basically following the same argument that the president is," Shays said. "She's singling out one group of people saying I'm going to cut your taxes, but it won't grow the economy."

McMahon spokesman Tim Murtaugh characterized Shays' barbs as an act of desperation.

"Chris Shays is 30 points behind, so it's no wonder he's jumping up and down trying to get attention on himself," Murtaugh said. "We're focusing on our actual opponent, Mr. Murphy."

neil.vigdor@scni.com; 203-625-4436; http://twitter.com/gettinviggy