Bush tax cuts: Could liberal Democrats block Obama's compromise?

Democrats have the votes to block the president's compromise with Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts. But many might have to accept that with Republicans set to gain more power in Congress next year, this is the best deal they're likely to get.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama makes a statement in Washington Monday on a year-end bipartisan agreement to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts.

Liberal Democrats aren’t happy that President Obama has agreed to the framework of a deal with congressional Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for ratepayers of all income levels, including the rich.

It’s true that the administration would get something back from this deal that’s important to many Democrats: extension of government aid for the long-term unemployed. But prior to the recent midterm elections Mr. Obama campaigned hard on limiting tax cuts to those making $250,000 a year or less. Some liberals think now that he’s just caving on the tax issue without putting up a fight.

“This is a direct betrayal of a core Obama campaign promise, and the essence of political malpractice and negotiating incompetence,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement.

The intraparty animus on this issue is such that in announcing the deal on Monday evening, Obama at times sounded as if he were arguing with the spirit of the late Edward Kennedy. He said that he knew many Democrats would prefer to prolong this battle rather than give in now. But "the American people did not send us here to wage symbolic battles or win symbolic victories," said Obama.

Republicans are adamant about extending tax cuts for the wealthy, he said, and any partisan warfare on the issue would easily run into next year, resulting in the expiration of the tax cuts for everyone, and ending long-term unemployment aid for millions of Americans.

"These are not abstract fights for the families that are impacted," said Obama.

Liberal Democrats object

While it’s true that voters generally disapprove of extending tax cuts for the wealthy, they also really, really don’t want their own taxes to go up. And that’s likely what would happen if Obama doesn’t strike a compromise with the Republicans.

Given the anger in the liberal base, Obama invited congressional Democratic leaders to the White House on Monday to sell them on his position. Is it possible that the president could strike a deal with the GOP, only to have it blocked by his own party?

Sure. It’s politics – anything is possible, until the moment when it isn’t. In the Senate, for instance, some liberal may well threaten to filibuster a vote on the issue. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont is a likely candidate here, as he gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor last week decrying US income inequality.

“The middle class is struggling for existence, and they are taking on some of the wealthiest, most powerful forces in the world, whose greed has no end,” said Senator Sanders.

A filibuster threat would mean the administration would have to muster 60 Senate votes to get any economic compromise to pass. To reach that magic number in this lame duck session, Obama would have to attract 18 Democrats, assuming that all 42 current GOP Senators vote “aye.”

“That’s a lot of Democrats, many of whom are very much on the record as opposing an extension for those over $250,000,” writes former Capitol Hill economic staffer Pete Davis on D.C.’s popular “Capital Gains and Games” economic blog.

As the partisan split now stands in the House, 39 Democrats would have to hold their noses and vote for the tax cut extension, along with all 178 Republicans, if such a compromise were to pass.

Obama's betrayal?

At heart the basic complaint of liberals is that Obama has surrendered to the Republicans on a core item without making a concerted case to the nation about how extension of tax cuts for the wealthy is wrong, and too expensive.

“Obama has seemingly surrendered his once-considerable abilities to act, decide or think,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich in a piece on Sunday. Mr. Rich further compared the president to a hostage suffering from mistaken Stockholm Syndrome sympathy for his captors.

In this view, the tax cut/unemployment insurance compromise is only the latest Obama betrayal. The administration did not fight to include a government-run public option health plan in the recent health-care reform bill, complain many liberals. Obama’s recent proposal to freeze federal worker salaries saves little money and is simply a sop to deficit hawks, liberals add.

Moderate Democrats reply that Obama ran hard on limiting the Bush tax cuts prior to the midterm – and that turned out great for the Democratic Party, didn’t it?

GOP gains ensure that any deal made after the lame-duck session will be worse. It’s better to strike now, in the view of moderates.

“You know, the president has to deal with reality. The reality is there are not the votes to limit the tax cuts to those with less than $250,000 of income a year,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota in a Monday broadcast interview on MSNBC.

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