House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed to give Democrats an opening on Sunday when he said he would support President Obama's plan for extending Bush tax cuts only to the middle class if that was his only choice.
But his counterpart in the Senate is apparently willing to make sure Boehner doesn't face such a choice. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) announced on Monday that he has the commitments from everyone in his caucus to oppose any tax package that doesn't include an extension for the rich as well.
As it happens, the Kentucky Republican didn't even need all those commitments. Earlier in the day, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) joined three other right-leaning Senate Democrats in announcing his opposition to any form of tax increases, giving Republicans more than enough votes to sustain a filibuster.
The dual announcements compelled a sober-minded acknowledgment from Democratic Senate aides that they lack the votes -- at this point in time -- for the party to pass only an extension of cuts for those making under $250,000 a year.
"I don't believe the Republicans are interested in dealing with this," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman Jim Manley. "I think they're more interested in the politics of it."
Adding salt to the wound, there currently exists no avenue for Democrats to pass only a limited extension through reconciliation, the 50-vote budgetary maneuver used to pass the Bush tax cuts in the first place. The budget resolution from last year, a top aide relayed, did not contain a reconciliation instruction for tax policy, only health care and education. As for this year, Congress hasn't passed a budget.
But a tough political landscape doesn't necessarily portend a policy compromise. Shortly after McConnell announced that he had the assurances of his Republican colleagues, Reid himself put out a blistering response, hinting that he is willing to call the GOP's bluff with respect to the tax cuts debate.
"It is unconscionable for Senate Republicans to hold middle-class tax cuts hostage in order to secure more tax giveaways for millionaires and CEOs who ship American jobs overseas," Reid said. "Today's declaration by Senate Republicans means they are willing to raise taxes on the middle class and small businesses in the middle of a recession."
The White House, meanwhile, has stressed repeatedly that they don't think the president will end up having to veto a negotiated package -- expressing confidence that Congress will end up backing an extension for those making less than $250,000 a year and nothing more. Senate aides, likewise, seem to be hankering for the vote even if they lack the confidence that they'll win it.
"If you move forward with tax cuts for the middle class, you force the GOP into one of two choices," said one top Senate Democratic aide. "One: agree and support the middle class cuts; or two: stand up for lobbyists and corporate executives as they push to include the higher end tax cuts as well. We win with either option -- either the middle class cuts pass or Republicans are isolated and look awful defending tax cuts for the richest of the rich. And, even if they try to tack on a full tax cut amendment, you'll need 19 Democrats to back it to let it fly."
There also has been some banter about a procedural maneuver that could end up assuaging the concerns of those conservative Democrats. Under one scenario, the Senate would schedule two votes; the first on tax cut extensions for those making under $250,000, followed by a separate vote on extending tax cuts for the wealthy. The former may have a greater chance of passage if members are convinced that they can also vote for the latter. A vote on extending tax cuts for the wealthy, however, may not get the necessary 60 votes to end a filibuster, owing to skeptical Democrats who see it as fiscally irresponsible politics.
Such a procedural maneuver, however, has yet to be seriously discussed at high levels. And some aides are uncertain that it could be successful.
"The problem," said one top Senate aide, "is that it seems to suggest that Senate Republicans will vote for something in the end. We do not believe that is the case."