Senate Democrats are preparing an aggressive legislative agenda to complement the vision President Obama outlined in his State of the Union Address. The goal is to test the idea that the public supports an agenda of aggressive federal action on behalf of the middle class, and that Republicans are locked in a pattern of reactionary opposition, even to popular policies.
The push is premised on the notion that the country has turned the corner on the fights over deficits and the size of government, and that keeping issues of equity and opportunity for the middle class at the center of the national debate will redound to Democrats’ political benefit, either by breaking the GOP or by putting them on the wrong side of public opinion.
But in an extremely consequential election year, when consensus becomes an endangered species on Capitol Hill, it will take a groundswell of political pressure to force either party to work with the other on a substantive agenda. So expect the Dems to hawk these issues relentlessly.
“Don’t be surprised if election year pressures in 2012 may push Republicans to cooperate with this President more than they might be planning to,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) at a Wednesday Democratic leadership briefing with reporters. “Otherwise they’re going to find themselves on the wrong side of the middle class again and again.”
Congress will first have to clear its plate of the payroll tax cut issue, and other key measures that expire at the end of February. But after that Senate Democrats plan a relentless push on issues with overwhelming public support, knowing full well Republicans have left themselves little space to work with Democrats, and lack the leverage or the positive agenda they’d need to change the subject.
“We intend to test this theory out by pursuing major chunks of the President’s middle class agenda. We’re going to push serious proposals to help create middle class jobs. We’re going to defend Medicare. And we will pursue tax reform that makes sense for the middle class,” Schumer said.
A senior Democratic aide says the caucus hasn’t decided what precise reforms to push. Some think that now would be an ideal, and surprising, time to take on the expiring Bush tax cuts — to renew the cuts for all income under one million dollars and let that new top bracket return to its Clinton-era rates. Others would like to see a broader reform premised on the Buffett rule.
“It’s a priority for us to act on some kind of Romney…I mean Buffett rule this year,” Schumer said, faking a slip-of-the-tongue. “The payroll tax debate has shown Republicans there is a price to be paid for opposing middle class people on issues of tax fairness.”
As Schumer’s joke suggests, Mitt Romney is going to be in the eye of the coming Democrat storm. There is an appetite in the Democratic party for closing the loophole — the “carried interest” loophole — that allows Romney to depress his tax rate so much. And it’ll likely come to a vote either as part of a comprehensive package or as a one-off bill.
“Certainly that’ll be part of what we do with tax reform,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “And if individual senators want to vote on that issue standing alone, they will perhaps have that opportunity.”
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.