WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's decision to endorse the tax reform principle that millionaires should pay more than the middle class is a begrudging tip of the hat to his party's most astutely political member: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Schumer previously pushed a variation of the so-called Buffett rule -- named after famed investor Warren Buffett -- as an alternative to allowing the Bush tax cuts for high-end earners (those making more than $200,000 individually or $250,000 as a family) to expire. But his gambit was ultimately defeated on the Senate floor, with the Obama administration among others shunning it as symbolic, if not losing, politics.
"His advice was to fight until February and then cut a deal, so we could score some points against the Republicans," a senior administration official said at the time. "It just didn't make sense."
Schumer's support for a millionaires' tax hike may have been driven by the fact that, in New York, those making $250,000 a year don't necessarily qualify as upper class. But still, the idea seems to tap into the populist zeitgeist seized on by the Democratic Party. And with the White House now embracing the concept (at least in theory), it seems the senator has won out.
"This is a game changer in the tax debate," Schumer said during a conference call on Monday. "It will make the Republican position almost indefensible. The president has a winning hand, and he is going all in. And I believe Democrats will be behind him. ... Just about every Democrat will be behind him."
Later in the conference call, Schumer said he would like to see the Buffett rule actually drafted into legislative language, scored for budget effect and put to a vote. Considering that the Democratic Party lacks the Senate members to overcome a filibuster or, in all likelihood, the discipline to secure all the Democratic votes, that seems far-fetched, although Schumer urged the president to barnstorm the country to whip up support.
"I find it very useful to make some proposal along the line that fits within the confines of the Buffett rule and put it on the floor. ... Once the president goes around the country and keeps talking about it, as I believe he will do, we are going to win this fight," Schumer said.
The concept of the Buffett rule would be moot if the president, as is his want, could secure the lapse of the Bush tax cuts (which makes the White House's embrace of the millionaire principle seem all the more symbolic). But good politics is good politics, Hill sources said, arguing that it is better and cleaner to draw the dividing line between the wealthy and the middle class at $1 million rather than $250,000. And for that reason alone, Schumer may get his way on a vote.
"This is a winning fight," said one congressional Democratic aide. "It never quite made sense that some didn't want to wage it last December, but better late than never."