Senate Republicans Threaten Tax Dispute Blockade
WASHINGTON — Not even 24 hours after President Obama met with senior Republican Congressional leaders and expressed hopes for a “new dialogue,” renewed partisan fury engulfed the Senate on Wednesday, as Republicans threatened to block any legislation until a deal is reached to extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, potentially derailing the Democrats’ busy end-of-year agenda.
The blunt threat was made in a letter to the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and signed by all 42 Senate Republicans. And it was reiterated by the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in a speech in which he accused Democratic leaders and Mr. Obama of ignoring the midterm election results.
The move put Democrats in a vise and sharply heightened tensions on Capitol Hill, where administration officials and senior lawmakers from both the House and Senate opened the first round of talks in hopes of reaching an accord on the expiring tax cuts. Officials reported no progress in those talks, and the Senate Republicans’ threat suggested they had little appetite for compromise.
If Congress does not act by the end of the year, the lower rates expire for everyone, an outcome neither side wants.
The Republican maneuver came just as Senate Democrats seemed within reach of the votes needed to authorize repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members. The Republican blockade stalls debate on the military policy bill containing the repeal language, and it casts a long shadow over numerous bills awaiting action in Congress, including efforts to extend jobless benefits for millions of Americans about to lose them.
It also complicates the chances of ratification of the New Start arms treaty with Russia that is a major priority for the White House, and it could prevent Mr. Reid from fulfilling a major promise of his re-election campaign, to try again to pass a bill that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.
“For the past two years, Democrat leaders in Washington have spent virtually all their time ticking off items on the liberal wish list while they’ve had the chance,” Mr. McConnell said. “Here we are, just a few weeks left in the session, and they’re still at it. Last month, the American people issued their verdict on the Democrats’ priorities. Democrats have responded by doubling down.”
Mr. McConnell’s announcement of an all-out blockade came just a day after he applauded Senator Christopher R. Dodd, the retiring Connecticut Democrat, for a farewell address in which Mr. Dodd called for greater civility and cooperation among lawmakers. His announcement drew howls of anger from Democrats who said it was just the latest evidence of Republican obstructionism.
To emphasize their point, Democrats went to the floor and attempted to bring up numerous bills, including a measure to extend jobless benefits and a measure to promote clean energy. On behalf of his colleagues, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, repeatedly voiced objections, blocking the bills and prompting a furious speech by Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri.
“If anybody’s been paying attention, they would understand that our friends across the aisle have been blocking everything, including motherhood and apple pie for the last year,” Ms. McCaskill said. She derided Mr. Barrasso for accusing the Democrats of engaging in theater. “Theater is having 42 senators say we will not participate unless you do what we want to do today,” she said. “That’s theater.”
Ms. McCaskill added, “What you are seeing on this side right now is a healthy dose of indignation on behalf of the American people that are hurting.”
Senate Republicans said they would even block a major food safety bill that the Senate adopted just on Tuesday but must be voted on again because of a parliamentary glitch. The food safety measure, which strengthens the Food and Drug Administration in an effort to prevent unsafe foods from reaching grocery stores and restaurant, was approved by a vote of 73 to 25, with 15 Republicans joining Democrats in support.
Under normal circumstances, the Senate might simply reapprove the bill by unanimous agreement, bypassing the need even for a formal roll call vote. But Republicans said they would block any effort to take up the bill again before the tax issue was resolved. And even then, they said, they will force Mr. Reid to spend the better part of a week cycling through procedural votes just to get the measure back on the floor.
If Republicans had any worry about being seen as uncooperative, they did not show it. Mr. Barrasso coolly objected to the Democrats’ efforts to bring up other bills, often saying he knew little about what the Democrats were trying to do.
“What I do know,” Mr. Barrasso said, “is 42 senators from this side of the aisle have signed a letter, a letter to say that what we ought to do and what we need to do is to find a way to fund the government and prevent a tax hike on every American come Jan. 1.”
Mr. Obama tried to put a positive spin on the day’s developments, saying he did not think Mr. McConnell’s threat broke the spirit of bipartisanship that the president expressed after his meeting with Republican Congressional leaders on Tuesday.
“Nobody wants to see taxes on middle-class families go up starting Jan. 1, and so there’s going to be some lingering politics that have to work themselves out in all the caucuses, Democrat and Republican,” Mr. Obama said. “But at the end of the day, I think that people of good will can come together.”
Mr. Obama and senior Democratic Congressional leaders want to let the tax cuts expire on annual income above $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for individuals, while continuing the lower rates on income below those amounts. The Democrats’ plan would add roughly $3 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years. The Republicans want to extend all of the lower rates, which would add about $4 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.
Democrats had hoped to put political pressure on Republicans by portraying them as fighting to maintain tax breaks even for millionaires and billionaires. But the Republicans pushed Democrats against a wall, making it clear that if they did not quickly agree to extend all of the lower rates, they risked accomplishing nothing else before the end of the year, when they lose their majority in the House.
Excerpt from the Republican's blockade letter, from NPR:
http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics ... debt-bills
The nation’s unemployment level, stuck near 10 percent, is unacceptable to Americans. Senate Republicans have been urging Congress to make private-sector job creation a priority all year. President Obama in his first speech after the November election said “we owe” it to the American people to “focus on those issues that affect their jobs.” He went on to say that Americans “want jobs to come back faster.” Our constituents have repeatedly asked us to focus on creating an environment for private-sector job growth; it is time that our constituents’ priorities become the Senate’s priorities.
For that reason, we write to inform you that we will not agree to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to any legislative item until the Senate has acted to fund the government and we have prevented the tax increase that is currently awaiting all American taxpayers. With little time left in this Congressional session, legislative scheduling should be focused on these critical priorities. While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate's attention, we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike.
Update on the situation, again from NPR:
http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics ... icken-crap
House OKs Middle-Class Tax Cuts Boehner Calls 'Chicken Crap'
The move is purely symbolic since it stands little to no chance of getting Senate approval. Senate Republicans have insisted that the tax cuts also be extended for those with income above $250,000.
But House Democrats and President Obama have so far rejected a permanent extension for the higher income taxpayers, saying it would cost about $700 billion over ten years.
With a smile, Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced the bill's passage by a 234-188 vote.
Earlier in the day, the next speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the Democratic maneuver "chicken crap." Actually, what he told reporters was:
I’m trying to catch my breath so I don’t refer to this maneuver that is going on today as chicken crap, all right. This is nonsense, all right? The election was one month ago. We are 23 months until the next election, and the political games have already started trying to set up the next election.
The move will allow House Democrats to boast that they kept their vow to extend the tax cuts to the middle class and deny them to wealthier taxpayers who, they argue, have received an unfair amount of the nation's income during the last decade.
The vote also comes against a backdrop of White House negotiations with congressional Republicans over extending the tax cuts, discussions which have reportedly gone nowhere fast.