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Bush tax cuts: why Democrats are planning two votes they know will fail

Senate Democrats are planning for two votes on the Bush tax cuts Saturday. But neither would extend all the Bush tax cuts, and Republicans have vowed to defeat any such proposals.

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McConnell stunned Senate Democrats this week by producing a letter signed by all 42 GOP senators saying they will not allow any votes on the floor unless tax cuts are extended and spending for fiscal year 2011 resolved.

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McConnell's conservative challenge

But conservatives in GOP ranks are pushing further. They want to hold the line not just on extending all tax cuts, but on extending them permanently. Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, who backed many tea party candidates against GOP establishment-backed picks, is opposing compromise on a temporary extension.

“Temporary is just not going to help our economy. Temporary legislation creates uncertainty,” he said, after a press briefing on Thursday. “Given problems with the economy, huge deficits, and out of control spending, we’re in a good position to take this through to permanent extensions.

Senator DeMint's position hints at the difficulties facing McConnell next year, when several new tea party-backed senators join the fray. “Mitch McConnell’s great virtue is the ability to stay on message, but more than one message will be coming out of Senate Republicans,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “McConnell can either live with the ambiguity of a multiple message or try to harmonize them.”

The tax dispute is also signaling shifts in relations between GOP leaders and the White House. President Obama, who met alone with McConnell only once in his presidency, can no longer hope to pick off one or two GOP senate moderates to get to 60 votes. Democrats fear that the White House will be more inclined to cut deals directly with GOP leaders.

The White House has tasked Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and budget office director Jack Lew with working out an agreement on the tax cuts with bipartisan congressional negotiators.

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