WASHINGTON -- The partisan wrestling on tax issues took an odd turn in the Senate Wednesday as Republicans objected to a vote on President Barack Obama's plan for a one-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts for people earning less than $250,000.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had challenged Democrats in the morning to bring up Obama's proposed extension for a vote, apparently believing it would not pass. He charged that the Senate should stop dithering on what he described as an unpopular tax hike.
"Frankly, we don’t have the luxury to waste any more time arguing about a question that’s already settled for most people," McConnell said. "The problem here isn’t that government taxes too little, but that it spends too much.
“What the American people need right now isn’t a lecture on fairness but some certainty," McConnell continued. “I have already called for a one-year extension of all of the current income tax rates. Today, I’ll go further by asking for consent that we set up two votes in the Senate.
“One on the president’s proposal to raise taxes on nearly one million business owners in the middle of the worst economic recovery in modern times, and one that would extend current income tax rates for one year," he said. “The Senate should make itself clear which policy it supports. This is our chance to do it."
But by the afternoon, Democrats seemed assured that they could manage to get at least 50 votes, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered the GOP its chance -- as long as it was a straight majority vote, with no 60-vote filibuster threshold used to block much legislation.
"They knew they'd lose," said one Democratic aide who was not authorized to speak publicly about the behind-the-scenes strategy. "So they came up with this lame excuse that they hadn't seen legislation they also hadn't seen in the morning."
Indeed, McConnell cried foul.
"I’d be happy to take a look at what my good friend the majority leader is offering, but I cannot at this time agree to lock in a vote at an indeterminate time on a proposal that has not yet been written," McConnell told Reid on the Senate floor. "My good friend has had all day to come up with a written proposal but I gather that so far they have been unable to do so. Or if they have, we certainly haven’t seen it."
A Democratic aide acknowledged a measure hasn't been written, but argued that it was a simple matter of doing what Obama asked. "The language is pretty simple," the staffer said, noting that all that's really required is changing the expiration date on the tax cuts from 2012 to 2013, and specifying that they apply only to the first $250,000 that anyone earns.
"We’d be happy to set up a vote on this critical issue, just as soon as the majority produces a bill to show us what tax increases they have in mind," McConnell said.
The jockeying on the president's tax plan came as the Senate was trying to move onto a small business tax cut bill that would give a 10 percent break to business for all new payroll costs, up to $5 million. It would also extend 100 percent bonus depreciation on investments that companies make on new machinery and expansion.
Reid argued that what McConnell and the Republicans really are trying to do is kill anything that might help the economy, and therefore Obama.
"Republicans are looking for any excuse to vote down the proposal for two reasons," Reid said. "It has the support of President Obama and Democrats in Congress. And it would strengthen the economy, which would help the president.
"We know Republicans won’t do anything that helps President Obama -– even if it’s good for the economy –- because their number one goal is to defeat the president. Mitch McConnell has said so," Reid said, referring to comments McConnell made not long after Obama took office.
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill Thursday, as well as a competing proposal by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that passed in the other chamber. That bill would grant an across-the-board 20 percent tax cut for all small businesses. Democrats oppose it on the grounds that it is not contingent on a business hiring anyone, and because the benefits go disproportionately to the wealthy.
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