Democratic lawmakers are trying to take a hard line with Republicans, threatening to let tax cuts expire at the end of the year rather than simply extend the Bush tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers.

In a speech Monday at the Brookings Institution, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called on Republicans to work with Democrats on finding a balanced approach to tax cuts for the middle class. Economists have warned of a “fiscal cliff” approaching at the end of the year when the current tax rates expire, and Congress is required to impose the harsh cuts in defense spending and discretionary spending that would be required under the so-called “sequestration” that was part of the deficit reduction deal last year.

“If Republicans won’t work with us on a balanced approach, we are not going to get a deal,” said Murray. “Because I feel very strongly that we simply cannot allow middle-class families and the most vulnerable Americans to bear this burden alone.”

Murray said she was willing to carry the discussions into next year if necessary, even if that meant letting the tax cuts expire.

“So if we can’t get a good deal, a balanced deal that calls on the wealthy to pay their fair share, then I will absolutely continue this debate into 2013 rather than lock in a long-term deal this year that throws middle-class families under the bus,” she said. “And I think my party, and the American people, will support that.”

Murray was part of the so-called “supercommmittee” that met last year in an unsuccessful effort to reach a deficit reduction deal to avert the cuts in defense spending and discretionary spending that were part of the sequestration. She said she would allow the sequestration to go forward if the two sides cannot agree on a balanced deal. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has reportedly been meeting with committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and a small group of lawmakers from both parties in an effort to head off the steep cuts in defense spending. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that the drastic military cuts could "hollow out the force." But Murray insisted that there would be no easy way out of the sequestration deal.

“If Democrats were willing to accept a wildly imbalanced deficit reduction plan to avoid the automatic cuts we would have done that back in the supercommittee,” she said. “But we didn’t then, and we won’t now. So anyone who tells you sequestration is going to simply disappear because both sides want to avoid it is either fooling themselves, or trying to fool you. It is going to have to be replaced, and that replacement is going to have to be balanced.”

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