Why Democrats are hesitant to vote on Obama's tax plan

President Obama urged Congress immediately to pass his plan to extend some of the Bush tax cuts. But Senate Democrats are taking their time, hoping to score political points. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday to discuss the Senate's upcoming vote on the Small Business Jobs and Tax Relief Act.

Lots of weird things happen in Congress in an election season. Case in point: For the next few weeks, Democrats swear they’re going to relish a fight on taxes.

 Taxes, of course, are typically GOP-controlled terrain, and that conversation typically goes something like this: We don't want any. But this year, Democrats think they have the winning hand, and so Senate Democratic leaders are twisting themselves into procedural pretzels to make sure the issue doesn't leave the public eye anytime soon.

Never mind that President Obama asked Congress last week immediately to pass a one-year extension of the Bush tax cuts up to $250,000 in household income. There's two weeks to go until Congress's summer break, and delaying a vote on the president's plan gives Democrats two weeks to pummel Republicans as middle-class-hating protectors of the fabulously wealthy and undertaxed. 

“We’re delighted to wait a few weeks and have the president go around the country and explain his tax proposal, our tax proposal, versus theirs,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York. “Every day, the more people hear about the difference between the two, the more they side with ours.” 

This, however, has required some small amount of legislative gymnastics. 

The Republicans, of course, knew exactly what the Democrats were up to and tried to trump them. They wanted to attach their Bush tax cut proposal – preserving the cuts for all income levels – and the president's to a bill aimed at cutting taxes for small businesses who hire new employees.

This is a bread-and-butter maneuver for the Senate minority – amending a bill that many people like in such a way as to make it poisonous to the opposing party. In this case, the amendments would have allowed Republicans to get the Bush tax cut vote out of the way quickly and move on to other issues.

But Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada was having none of it. On Wednesday morning, he disallowed the amendments and later, for good measure, closed down all further amendments on the small businesses bill.

In the procedure-obsessed Senate, closing off amendments is like taking doughnuts from Homer Simpson. Expect things to get ugly. 

 Republicans expressed their shock that the Senate majority leader would block a vote on a plan that the president himself wanted passed as soon as possible (because they, after all, are always so eager to please the president). They also savaged Senator Reid's solution: The two tax plans would come up for a vote as bills of their own – at some point before the summer recess. 

Republicans already had their bill written, by Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Orrin Hatch of Utah. But who knows what the Democrats would put into their proposal, suggested Senate minority leader McConnell.

“If the president has a proposal, we’ll be happy to send an intern down to the White House to pick it up. But we can’t vote on a speech,” McConnell said Thursday. “And, frankly, we can’t continue like this. It’s long past time Democrats at the White House and in the Senate took the lives and challenges of working Americans as seriously as they take politics.”

The politics of the bill are quite clear. It's not about passing the bill, it's about scoring political points.

It won't have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster. Several vulnerable Democratic senators – Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Jon Tester of Montana – all gave lukewarm reactions to the president’s plan, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, who caucuses with Democrats, said he would vote against it. 

But Democratic leaders appeared confident at a press conference Thursday that they would have at least 51 votes for the president’s measure – a symbolic statement that would show Democrats in general are on board. Trying to add to this impression, Senate Finance Chairman Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota said Tuesday that the “vast majority” of the caucus is “comfortable” with the president’s plan. 

And, it goes without saying, many will be comfortable talking about it – a lot – during the next two weeks. 

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