Senate Democrats have accomplished a feat they were unable to muster back in 2009 and 2010, when they had a much larger majority: On Wednesday, they passed a bill to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone’s first $250,000 in income.
The legislation prevailed 51-48 — a vote that signals Democrats would ultimately be willing to allow tax cuts for high-income earners to expire at the end of the year.
Republicans aided Democrats in the effort, by agreeing to drop their filibuster and allow the legislation to pass or fail on a simple majority basis. But Wednesday’s tight roll call nevertheless required Vice President Joe Biden to chair the Senate’s proceedings if, in a rare exercise of his constitutional duties as president of the Senate, his vote was needed to break a tie.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Jim Webb (D-VA) voted with Republicans against the measure.
The Democrats’ bill is the cornerstone of President Obama’s re-election strategy, and a policy he’s advocated since his first presidential campaign in 2008.
For the purposes of the current campaign, Senate Democrats’ actions Wednesday reinforce some of Obama’s key arguments to voters: that wealthier Americans should contribute more than they do to financing the country’s infrastructure, safety net and other programs; and that Republicans would rather block tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the middle class than see tax cuts benefiting only the country’s highest income earners expire.
Senate Republicans offered a competing bill to extend all of the Bush tax cuts for one year, but the measure was defeated 45-54. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) crossed the aisle to voted with most Republicans in support of that legislation. Sens. Scott Brown (R-MA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) voted with Democrats.
Wednesday’s development places the onus of avoiding the full expiration of the Bush tax cuts on House Republicans. They are expected to pass legislation next week to extend all of the Bush tax cuts — but the Senate has already rejected that proposition. That leaves the Senate Democrats’ bill as the only viable vehicle for preventing everyone’s taxes from increasing next year.
Republicans will object to House adoption of the Senate bill on technical grounds. It faces what’s known as a blue-slip problem, because the Constitution requires revenue-raising measures to originate in the House of Representatives. But the blue-slip problem is only an obstacle if House Republicans insist on making it one — and Democrats are confident voters will be receptive to the argument that the GOP is standing in the way of middle-income tax cuts until wealthy Americans get a tax cut too.
To that end, the White House announced President Obama’s strong support for the Senate bill. “All sides agree on the need to extend the tax cuts for the middle class,” reads a statement of administration policy. “[T]his legislation reflects that consensus, and should not be held hostage while debating the merits of another tax cut for the wealthy.”
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.