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.

Alex Brandon/AP
Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez (l.) and Charles Schumer take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Friday to discuss proposals to continue the Bush tax cuts for the middle class.

To get to a deal on expiring Bush-era tax cuts – and to extended unemployment insurance for some 2 million Americans – Senate Democrats are making lawmakers run a legislative gantlet Saturday.

One vote will be on whether to extend tax cuts only for families with incomes up to $250,000. The House on Thursday passed a similar measure, 234 to 188.

The second vote, proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, would extend tax breaks for families making up to $1 million.

Neither is expected to get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster, because Republicans have vowed to back legislation only if it extends tax cuts for all income levels. But the real hope for the two bills is not passage, but political gain.

In the end, the Republicans look certain to get what they want – extension of all the Bush tax cuts. While they will remain the minority when the new Senate convenes next year, Republicans will gain six seats, meaning Democrats will need to compromise to get anything done.

But Saturday, Democrats want to force Republicans to vote against bills that would extend tax cuts to the vast majority of Americans, solely because Republicans want to preserve tax cuts for top income earners. In this way, Democrats hope to make Republicans – especially senators facing voters in 2012 – pay a political cost.

Masters of the procedural dance

“Democrats' priorities are clear: We're protecting middle-class families every way we can. Tomorrow's votes will show where the Republicans' priorities are,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid in a floor speech on Friday.

“These votes will very clearly demonstrate who supports the middle class,” he added. “They can pretend we can afford to give billionaires another handout, even though we know we can't.”

Senate Republicans, citing Friday’s unemployment figures, dismiss these votes as political theater. “This morning, we learned unemployment is now at 9.8 percent, even higher than last month. And Democrats are responding with a vote to slam job creators with a massive tax increase,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor on Friday.

“Millions of out-of-work Americans don't want show votes or finger-pointing contests. They want jobs. Americans don't want to see meaningless theatrics in Congress,” he added.

Both Senators Reid and McConnell are highly skilled floor managers with a comprehensive grasp of Senate procedure. They have battled the Senate to a stalemate for two years. But the GOP gain of six Senate seats in the November elections gives McConnell a new edge – and a formidable new management problem in leading a caucus with a significantly stronger conservative wing.

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.

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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