Just three days after the White House established a bipartisan team to find a compromise on renewing the Bush-era tax cuts, House Democrats pushed through a measure that extended the cuts only to the "middle class" – households with annual income less than $250,000.
It was a toxic vote for Republicans, who are holding out to extend the Bush tax cuts to high-earners as well, at least temporarily. To defeat the $250,000 cap, House Republicans had to vote against extending taxes for the vast majority of American taxpayers – a vote that could come back to haunt them in opposition campaign ads.
Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio dubbed the move “chicken crap” and “nonsense.” “We're 23 months from the next election, and the political games have already started, trying to set up the next election,” he said.
In the end, all but three Republicans voted against the bill – and the GOP picked up some Democratic support for its position as the House leaders struggled to hold their caucus together. Thirty-three Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing a procedural vote to get to this bill, and 20 voted against the bill in the final vote. The measure passed 234-188. The real work on the tax-cut legislation will be done in the Senate.
Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, who last month survived a tough reelection bid against a tea party-backed GOP rival, says he would have voted to extend tax breaks to all income levels because a tax increase in hard economic times will hurt job creation. “Why would we want to do that? It will hurt the very people we want to protect,” he said before Thursday’s vote. “There is opportunity for some common ground here, but unfortunately we’re dealing with immovable objects here – ideology in their party and in ours.”
By pushing through the measure, Democratic congressional leaders also sent a message to President Obama. He has been widely criticized in House Democratic ranks for ceding too much ground to Republicans, most recently when he volunteered to freeze nonmilitary government salaries in advance of Monday’s White House meeting with congressional leaders.
“House Democrats are taking a very different negotiating strategy than President Obama,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “They are starting with what they want before negotiating with Republicans. President Obama tends to give things away before he negotiates.”
“It’s not just political theater," he adds. Democrats are "trying something different than we’ve seen over the last two years, which is to stand firm before the negotiations."
The White House applauded the House vote, but in a statement press secretary Robert Gibbs gave a reality check. "Because Republicans have made it clear that they won’t pass a middle class extension without also extending tax cuts for the wealthy, the President has asked [OMB] Director [Jacob] Lew and [Treasury] Secretary [Timothy] Geithner to work with Congress to find a way forward. ...The talks are ongoing and productive, but any reports that we are near a deal in the tax cuts negotiations are inaccurate and premature.”
Thursday's vote did little to engender the spirit of bipartisanship, as Republicans complained bitterly about Democrats' determination to bring the bill to the floor. “It’s to put us in a box,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, at a Monitor breakfast on Thursday. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called it “a purely political exercise.”
Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, one of four congressional representatives working with the White House on a compromise deal, called the vote irresponsible. “Their position is so precarious they wouldn’t even allow Republicans to offer amendments or any alternative,” he said in a statement. “Why? Because Democrats know the Republican bill to extend the current tax rates for all taxpayers would pass with broad bipartisan support.”
House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland said on the floor that the bill, in fact, does represent common ground. “My suspicion is that almost everybody wants to make sure that the first $250,000 of income of every American is not subject to a tax increase on January 1,” he said.
He also reminded the House that Thursday's vote is not the end of the process. It goes on to the Senate, where it could be used as the legislative vehicle for whatever compromise emerges from ongoing negotiations. (All revenue bills have to start in the House.)
“I frankly want to say this is not the final package," he said. “This is a vehicle that can be used by the other body to effect consensus policy. Let us not hold hostage that to which we agree for that to which we do not agree.”