At least one Democratic senator says that he’s encouraging members on his side of the aisle not to give Republicans one inch in the ongoing fight over how to address the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. He says the legislative landscape offers his party tremendous leverage in the fight and unless Republicans are willing to begin negotiating in good faith, Dems should allow the cuts to expire entirely and then retroactively pass new tax cuts that don’t benefit the wealthiest Americans.
But despite such a clear strategic advantage, he doesn’t have much faith that Democrats will organize around it.
“No, I’m not confident and I don’t believe any coherent strategy has taken shape yet,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said Monday in an interview with reporters and editors at TPM’s Washington bureau.
“There will be a mad dash after the election, so there will be some preparation; members pushing as I will be pushing to say we’ve got tremendous leverage here and let’s look at a coherent set of options …” Merkley said.
“It tends to be that if you have a strategy, you’re more successful than if you don’t have a strategy,” the senator added, dryly. “But I doubt that will be very publicly prepared or pursued, in part because … they just don’t realize what this election’s going to bring, who will it give momentum to, how will it tip the playing field.”
As outlined here, other Democrats also see breaking the GOP’s back over taxes as a key strategic imperative. But it attends significant political risks. Republicans are aggressively pushing to renew all the Bush tax cuts again, and attacking Democrats for risking — or even threatening — a major tax increase. At the same time they’re pushing to roll back defense spending cuts baked into existing law, and replace them with cuts elsewhere in the budget. But the so-called defense sequester is a huge source of leverage Dems can use to force Republicans to get real on taxes. So of course Republicans are accusing Dems them of inviting a huge national security risk.
Merkley says Dems should weather those attacks.
“I’m encouraging my team to realize we have lots of leverage on this,” he explained. “This is not a situation where you go to the table and you’re desperate to get a deal. Republicans are concerned about the [automatic] defense cuts. I personally feel that there’s probably a fair amount of defense cuts that are absolutely needed. But that goes to my view that we’re spending too much money overseas and too little on infrastructure and too little on education. The moment that January 1 comes, there’s kind of a hall pass granted to Republican legislators because now more modest changes than the Bush cuts are ones that are still tax breaks to the status quo. So that also gives some room for them to honor their pledge, if you will, and still work towards a reasonable ground on this.”
Conservative activists recognize that risk. And to guard against it, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is warning Republicans to hold fast and accept nothing less than full extension of existing taxes.
The election will figure heavily in how this all shakes out. But it’s no coincidence that influential conservatives and liberal senators are preparing — in completely different ways — for the exact same outcome.
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.