WASHINGTON -- House Democrats mounted a bid Tuesday to give nearly all taxpayers a Christmas Eve present by trying to force a Dec. 24 vote on a bill to extend tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans.
Offering what's known as a discharge petition, which forces House leaders to bring a bill up for a vote, Democrats hoped to require action on a Senate measure that passed last July and would keep all the Bush-era tax cuts in place for income under $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for individuals.
Republicans showed little desire to sign on, likely leaving the fate of the so-called middle class tax cuts up to the ongoing negotiations between the White House and Congress.
Democrats tried the uncommon discharge petition partly because some Republicans had been expressing a willingness to move the Senate bill, chief among them Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
"I would urge Republicans to sign it, I would hope Tom Cole would sign this," said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) shortly before the petition bid. "He said middle-class taxpayers deserve an early Christmas gift. Well, they do -- not so we can give them a Christmas gift, but so that we can give them confidence."
The vote on the bill would have come on Christmas Eve because of House rules on the timing of such a vote.
Members of the other party seldom sign on to such efforts to pass legislation, seeing them as stunts. But Democrats saw it as a reasonable step, considering the circumstances.
"Is it realistic? Absolutely," said Hoyer. "The American public certainly expects us to act when we're in agreement."
Congress has mandated that all the Bush-era rates revert to the levels they were at during the Clinton administration at the start of 2013. Congress also passed the Budget Control Act last year, requiring the start of steep budget cuts in the new year. The combination makes up the so-called "fiscal cliff" that some economists warn could tip the nation's economy back into recession.
President Barack Obama and Democrats have been arguing that taxes should go back up for income above the top two rates, and kept the same for the middle class, calling on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to bring the Senate bill up for a vote.
A Democratic aide noted that part of the point was to highlight the fact that Boehner could set a vote at any time.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) repeated the Democrats' call shortly before the petition effort, noting that all it would take to pass was a couple dozen Republicans crossing the aisle. The petition needs 218 signatures to succeed.
"The American people should see that picture," Reid said. "With 25 Republican votes -- 25 Republican votes -- the middle class of America would be able to rest assured that they will not get a tax increase at the first of the year. Twenty-five Republicans is all it would take."
Republicans argued that the matter should be left to negotiators trying to cut a deal with the White House, but none directly addressed the Democratic petition.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued that the only reason Republicans would not let the Senate bill have a vote was they wanted to try to extract an extension of the tax cuts for the wealthy, as well.
"That's not negotiating, that's hostage-taking," said Pelosi. "We are in agreement on this subject -- why, my Republican colleagues, can we not have a vote?"
Some 18 House Democrats who had opposed the Senate bill in the summer on varying grounds backed the petition anyway, saying it the only way to get the GOP leadership to act.
"You came here to make a difference, not to be part of a back-bench negotiation thing where they come to you and tell you what was negotiated," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), who led the petition effort. "I can tell you that there is not a single person that was running for election this year who didn't hear, 'Just work together and get it done.' [Republicans] can go back home and say, 'I did it.' If they don't sign this thing, they've got to go back home and [their constituents will] say, 'Well, why didn't you at least get that part done?' The public believes that."
UPDATE: 1:50 p.m. -- By mid-afternoon 142 out of 191 House Democrats had signed the petition.
One Republican, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina -- who was just removed from his committee postion by House leaders -- suggested he might be willing to sign if talks showed no signs of progress by late next week.
"At this point I am not going to sign the discharge petition, but I said at this point," Jones told reporters. "What would change my mind is, see if there's any forward movement."
But if there is none and time is running out, he might not only sign the petition, but be willing to pass the Senate bill to ensure 98 percent of taxpayers don't get hit with a hike. "I would probably vote for it at that point," Jones said.
Sarah Bufkin contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Rep. Walter Jones' state. He is from North Carolina.