On Wednesday, Senate Democrats will offer their Republican counterparts a choice: agree to debate legislation extending the Bush tax cuts for income up to $250,000 for one year, or prove that you’re holding tax cuts for everybody hostage to tax cuts benefiting the very wealthiest Americans alone.
It’s Congressional maneuvering for the right to control political messaging, but this particular political message is central to the election-year debate over tax equity and the extent to which the federal government should provide and pay for domestic projects from infrastructure to safety net programs that help the elderly and poor.
The outcome of the vote is in little doubt.
On multiple occasions, Republicans have refused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s request to hold sequential votes — one to extend all the Bush tax cuts for a year; one to pass the Democrats’ plan — on a majority-rules basis.
Faced with this implicit filibuster threat, Reid’s challenge is to convince at least 50 members of his 53-member caucus to vote to extend middle-income tax cuts, and other tax benefits targeted at middle class voters. He’s already signaled he’s rounded them up. That won’t be enough to force a floor debate on the issue — but it gives Democrats a specific vote they can point voters to and validate their election-year argument that Republicans are so committed to preserving low marginal tax rates for wealthy Americans that they’d rather let everyone’s taxes go up instead.
That argument is at the heart of the Democrats’ pitch to voters. It remains the key obstacle standing between Congress and addressing the major tax increases and arbitrary spending cuts set to kick in automatically early next year. And it will ultimately leave the GOP’s presidential hopeful Mitt Romney — whose effective federal tax rate in 2010 was below 15 percent — to answer for a Republican legislative strategy that’s specifically designed to preserve tax cuts for the most financially successful people in the country.
“If the choice is between tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need and funding our troops that they definitely need to keep our country strong I will stand with our troops every single time,” President Obama said in a Monday address to Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Republicans have several reasons for blocking the Democrats’ bill. Preserving the Bush era’s low tax baseline is key to the right’s years-long strategy of starving the federal government of revenue in order to, eventually, massively scale back federal safety net programs. GOP members are thus under intense pressure from conservatives to kill any legislation that leaves tax cuts for wealthy vulnerable to expiration — even if the legislation doesn’t include any explicit tax increases.
But that still leaves them exposed to Obama’s argument. And so they’ll continue to muddy the issue.
“Democrats haven’t offered a single credible argument about how their tax increase targeted at job creators will help struggling middle class Americans,” Senate Minority Mitch McConnell claimed on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Surely they don’t think this tax increase is the fiscally responsible thing to do.”
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.