The Senate’s decision not to address the Bush tax cuts until after the election is the strongest indication yet that the game is over. After a House Democratic caucus meeting this morning — but before the news broke on the Senate side — key legislators were mum, and aides pessimistic, that the House will do what Speaker Pelosi wants to do: force a vote on tax legislation that will put Republicans on the record backing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Pelosi herself had earlier canceled a scheduled press conference, another sign that her attempt to rally the caucus was coming up short. With House Democratic leaders still insisting that they will follow the Senate’s lead, it seems more and more likely that they too will drop the tax cut issue until after the election.
Pelosi’s effort to wrangle her caucus into voting on middle-income tax cuts before the election appears not have dislodged conservative and politically vulnerable Democrats who either wanted to extend all the Bush tax cuts, including for high-income earners, or to avoid any kind of risky vote s close to the elections.
In what would be a surprising twist, one member of the Democratic leadership team suggested Dems might pivot away from the argument over upper-income tax cuts and press ahead with a separate raft of cuts before adjourning.
At a press availability after the meeting, TPM asked Majority Whip James Clyburn whether the House will “take up the issue of the Bush tax cuts” before adjourning next week. Clyburn puzzlingly responded by noting that the caucus stands behind a full extension of tax cuts in the stimulus bill. Those cuts are popular among Democrats and Republicans, but are ultimately a different issue than the Bush cuts.
“As the whip, I have been counting votes for President Barack Obama’s tax cut,” Clyburn said. “And I like the votes that are there for an extension of President Obama’s tax cuts. You may recall that all the American people—95 percent of the American people got a tax cut—in our legislation, that we call the recovery package. And what we’re trying to do is extend that.”
That would constitute a major punt, and suggests that the House, like the Senate, will kick the question of what to do about the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts until after the election.
“There is unanimity in the caucus around what Jim Clyburn has just said,” said Dem conference chair John Larson. “The anxiety comes from what our erstwhile colleagues across the building will do in the United States Senate.”
House Ways and Means Committee chairman Sander Levin agreed with Larson — the House will wait for the Senate: “I don’t think there’s a change in that.”
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) — a close ally of Pelosi’s — likewise couldn’t say whether the House would do anything at all about tax cuts before members head back to their districts next week.
“I just don’t know,” he said.
Now that the Senate’s plans have been clarified, we should know how this story ends very soon.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.