WASHINGTON — Democrats pushed a yearlong extension of tax cuts for all but the highest-earning Americans through the Senate on Wednesday, giving President Barack Obama and his party a significant political victory on a measure that is fated to go no further in Congress.

Senators approved the Democratic bill by a near party-line 51-48 vote, with Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the chamber in case his vote was needed to break a tie. Minutes earlier, lawmakers voted 54-45 to kill a rival Republican package that would have included the best-off in the tax reductions.

The $250 billion Democratic measure would extend tax cuts in 2013 for millions of Americans that otherwise would expire in January. But it would deny those reductions to the earnings of individuals exceeding $200,000 yearly and of couples surpassing $250,000.

With control of the White House and Congress at stake in elections less than four months off, passage of the Democratic bill aligned the Senate with Obama's tax-cutting vision. Obama has made tax fairness – which includes tax increases on the rich – an overarching theme of his re-election campaign, and rejection of the measure would have been an embarrassment for the president and Senate Democrats.

The vote also served as a counterpoint to the GOP-run House, which next week will approve tax cuts nearly identical to the $405 billion Republican plan the Senate rejected Wednesday. And it lets Democrats argue that only the GOP stands in the way of tax cuts for millions of Americans.

"With the Senate's vote, the House Republicans are now the only people left in Washington holding hostage the middle-class tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans and nearly every small business owner," Obama said in a written statement after the vote.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, restated his plan for next week's vote, citing the Democratic measure's tax boosts on higher earners. Republicans say those increases sap money from business owners who would otherwise create jobs, which Democrats say is overblown.

"The House will vote next week to stop that tax hike, and until the Senate does the same, the threat to our economy remains," Boehner said in a written statement.

Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has said just 3.5 percent of taxpayers with business income filing individual returns would be exposed to higher taxes next year under the Democratic bill. But such taxpayers account for 53 percent of reported business income on those returns.

Wednesday's Senate vote also highlighted how both parties see the tax issue as a winning one: Democrats because they think it makes the GOP look like defenders of the rich, Republicans because they think it shows Democrats don't care about businesses.

It took just minutes for Democratic Senate campaign officials to send emails saying that Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., was "holding tax relief for the middle-class hostage by demanding more millionaire tax breaks." GOP Senate campaign operatives sent out similar emails, with one saying Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., had voted to "raise taxes on Montana farmers, ranchers & small business owners."

Tester and Heller are in tight re-election contests this November.

The two parties have been dueling over taxes all year. Few expect any real progress until after the November elections on preventing the tax cuts or averting deep budget cuts in January triggered by the failure of lawmakers to compromise last year on debt reduction.

In Wednesday's vote, two senators who will retire next year – Jim Webb, D-Va., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who usually votes with Democrats – were that party's only defectors on final passage.

Opposing the GOP measure were Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who faces a tough re-election fight in November, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who could have a tight re-election in 2014, voted for both the Republican and Democratic plans.

"If the wealthiest people in America can't get a tax break, the Senate Republicans say, `No one gets a tax break,'" Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Senate Democrats' No. 2 leader, said after the roll calls. "That was what these two votes tell us."

Republicans said the measure was all about Democratic posturing for the upcoming elections.

"Thank goodness it's not going anywhere because it would be bad for the economy, the single worst thing we could do to the country," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.

Republicans were hoping that several Democrats seeking re-election would hurt their candidacies by having backed the Democratic package. The bill would dramatically boost the estate tax, which would be widely unpopular in farming, ranching and high cost-of-living states, and increase levies on dividends and capital gains, which are relied on by many elderly people.

"That's what today's votes are all about," McConnell said in a thinly veiled warning to Democrats. "Showing the people who sent us here where we stand."

Illustrating the potential high-voltage political impact of the vote, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who is in a tight re-election race, announced she had introduced a bill preventing the estate tax from rising next year, and Tester co-sponsored it. She issued a news release to that effect just minutes after voting for the Democratic bill, which would let estate taxes go much higher in 2013.

Under the Democratic measure, individuals earning over $200,000 and couples making at least $250,000 would see their top rates on those earnings rise from 33 percent and 35 percent today to 36 percent and 39.6 percent in January.

That increase would affect 2.5 million households, or 2 percent of all 140.5 million tax returns, according to 2009 Internal Revenue Service statistics.

The White House said that if the tax cuts were not continued, middle class families would face average tax increases next year of $1,600. It also said that the GOP bill would grant tax reductions averaging $160,000 to households where income exceeds $1 million annually.

The Democratic bill would also boost the top tax rate paid by people who inherit estates to 55 percent, exempting the first $1 million in an estate's value. The GOP measure would maintain today's 35 percent top rate and would not tax the first $5.12 million of an estate's value.

In fresh figures released this week by Republicans, Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the Democratic provision would affect 55,200 estates next year, compared with 3,600 who would face estate taxes under the GOP plan.

Democrats would impose top tax rates next year of 20 percent on dividends and capital gains, two sources of income enjoyed disproportionately by the wealthy. The GOP top rate would be 15 percent.

The GOP bill ignores some tax credits for low- and middle-income families that Democrats want to extend for college costs; for some low-income couples and large working families; and for families with children.

All were part of Obama's economic 2009 stimulus bill. Democrats say those tax breaks were meant to be permanent but Republicans say they were only a short-term response to the recession.

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Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

Earlier on HuffPost:

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  • House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)

    Commenting on Occupy Wall Street and the redistribution of wealth on ABC's "This Week" recently, <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/week-transcript-speaker-john-boehner/story?id=14892830&page=5#.TswHj3NPkqV" target="_hplink">House Speaker John Boehner said</a>: <blockquote>Come on. The top 1 percent pay 38 percent of the income taxes in America. You know, how much more do you want them to pay? Well, I'll tell you what: Let's take all the money that the rich have, all of it. It won't even put a dent in our current budget deficit, much less our debt.</blockquote>

  • Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.)

    Rep. Larry Bucshon <a href="http://gcdailyworld.com/story/1786079.html" target="_hplink">said in an interview</a> with a local Indiana paper that the tax code needs to be simplified, and he invoked the Republican party line that the wealthiest Americans are creating jobs: <blockquote>I'm not for raising taxes on one sector of the economy. I think right now when you have a high unemployment and you raise taxes on the higher income earners, and they are not going to create any jobs. Arguing right now that the higher income earners aren't paying their fair share is not true. The data shows that. The top 1 percent of income earners are paying about 38 percent of the taxes. The top 10 percent are paying about 70 percent of the taxes.</blockquote>

  • Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.)

    During an House Education and the Workforce Committee markup, <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEArFmRDtrw&feature=youtu.be" target="_hplink">Rep. Mike Kelly made a plea</a> to "stop railing against the really wealthy": <blockquote>I've got to tell you something. As a guy who has had to pay his own way his whole life, I am greatly offended by the idea that somehow somebody in Washington knows how to spend my money better than I do. That somebody in Washington knows how to regulate me to the point where I can't even borrow money anymore. You want to talk about people who are afraid? The small banks. They're scared to death to do anything. Why? Because their government has such onerous regulations on them anymore that they don't know about the rules and the regulations that have been put through or haven't even been written. So when you want to sit back and talk about these wealthy, evil people ... you want them to spend money? Make their future certain.</blockquote>

  • Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.)

    Commenting on President Barack Obama's proposed jobs bill in September, Rep. Scott DesJarlais also <a href="http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:uHUJCTcKdokJ:www.wbir.com/rss/article/183289/2/TN-lawmakers-reaction-mixed-on-Obama-speech-+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a " target="_hplink">used the "job creators" line</a>. The congressman argued that wealthy Americans are "shouldering the burden" by "already paying the lion's share of taxes, and taxing them more is going to hurt jobs."

  • Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas)

    Two months ago, a handful of local Democrats protested outside Rep. Blake Farenthold's office in opposition to the proposed Buffett Rule Act, which would allow taxpayers to make donations with their income tax returns to help pay down the federal public debt. The bill was named after billionaire Warren Buffett, who has said he should be paying more in taxes. GOP lawmakers responded by suggesting wealthy Americans voluntarily donate extra money when they file their tax returns. "I think everybody is paying their fair share," <a href="http://www.kiiitv.com/story/15591779/local-democrats-stage-protest-on-congressman-farenthold" target="_hplink">Farenthold said</a>, adding, "And before we look at raising taxes on anybody, we've got to get the government spending under control. There's no point in pouring more money into something when it's hemorrhaging out the other end."

  • Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.)

    In March, months before the Occupy Wall Street movement arose, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle <a href="http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2011/03/half_applaud_half_jeer_at_rep.html" target="_hplink">expressed sadness</a> at the class warfare in America. "The middle class is being screwed," said the congresswoman at a town hall meeting, but added that the wealthy aren't to blame. "Why do we have class warfare?" she said. "Why do we want to punish the rich? They worked hard for their money."

  • Rep. John Fleming (R-La.)

    Rep. John Fleming made more than $6 million last year, according to the <em>Wall Street Journal</em>. In September on MSNBC, he <a href="http://www.rawstory.com/rawreplay/2011/09/tea-party-rep-only-400000-left-after-i-feed-my-family/" target="_hplink">used himself as an example</a> of why he opposes raising taxes on millionaires: <blockquote>The amount that I have to reinvest in my business and feed my family is more like $600,000 of that $6.3 million. And so by the time I feed my family, I have maybe $400,000 left over to invest in new locations, upgrade my locations, buy more equipment.</blockquote> MSNBC's Chris Jansing responded that the average American makes more like $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 a year, to which Fleming responded: <blockquote>Again, class warfare never created a job. That's people that will not get jobs. This is all about creating jobs. It's not about attacking people who make certain incomes. You know, in this country most people feel that being successful in their businesses is a virtue, not a vice. And once we begin to identify it as a vice, this country is going down.</blockquote>

  • Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.)

    In August amidst the heated debate over raising the debt ceiling, Rep. Dan Benishek <a href="http://www.petoskeynews.com/news/pnr-benishek-delves-into-debt-ceiling-vote-federal-budget-during-forum-20110824,0,4643945.story" target="_hplink">addressed federal spending</a> at a public forum in Michigan. The congressman said that he would like to ease up on taxing corporations' foreign earnings and that he disagrees with raising taxes on oil companies. <blockquote>I think oil companies pay their fair share. I can understand where the oil company wants to deduct the cost of drilling a well. That's one of the tax breaks for oil companies, the subsidies. They get to deduct the cost of the well the year you drill.</blockquote>