Democrats Toy With Endgame

House and Senate Democrats scrambled Tuesday to finalize their pre-election exit strategy. But as has been the case for much of the 111th Congress, they remain at odds on a path forward.

The only thing the chambers seem to be able to agree on is that they need to let Members go home by the end of next week, after passing a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through the elections.

"People want to get home," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday. "It's an election year and there are a lot of very close elections. ... If we can't do anything positive, if we can't … pass laws of importance, then why stay here and debate?"

But discontent over having to vote on raising taxes — even just on the wealthy — continued to cause anxiety on both sides of the Capitol. And Democratic leaders exited a bicameral leadership meeting Tuesday night saying no decisions had been made on how, when or whether to bring up an extension of Bush-era tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year.

The two chambers have been battling over which side should go first, but a Senate-only debate sometime next week appears to be the most likely scenario. It was unclear whether either chamber would actually vote on the issue before leaving town.

"I have nothing worked out yet," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

Aides said the Nevada Democrat was hoping to reach an agreement in the coming days with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the parameters of the tax cut debate. The pair was scheduled to meet Tuesday, and Senate Democrats said they would discuss strategy at their caucus on Thursday.

Reid appeared to be leaning toward bringing up votes on extending the tax cuts next week, given a fear that Republicans could use Senate rules to force a debate anyway. Still, Democratic Senators said there are internal disagreements over whether to have a debate at all.

Sen. Tom Carper said he would be happy to take up the issue but said some Members who are up for re-election feel it might further imperil their chances on Nov. 2.

[IMGCAP(1)]"Right now, it's not clear to me that we're actually going to take up and debate before the election the so-called Bush tax cuts," the Delaware Democrat said. He added, "My inclination is to listen to people who are running and … try to be understanding of their position."

Durbin, who early in the day floated the notion that middle-class tax cuts could be added to the CR, said the issue didn't come up during the House and Senate leadership meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was facing problems within her ranks over how to proceed. Many moderate Democrats fear that any vote on extending the tax cuts — regardless of the form — could hurt their re-election bids.

Some moderates think punting until a lame-duck session or even next year would give them the flexibility to tailor their message on the tax cut issue to their individual districts, rather than being tied to having to defend a specific vote. Some also think that a "no" vote on any tax cut bill would not inoculate them fully against charges they helped put Pelosi and the current Democratic leadership in power. Even Democrats who opposed health care and climate change are facing Republican attempt to tie them to those proposals.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), whom Pelosi has tapped to act as an unofficial liaison between fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats and the leadership, said he saw no reason to have a tax cut vote unless the Senate is also able to pass a bill.

"Why should we even try when they can't get anything passed over there because Republicans aren't cooperating?" Cardoza said as he left Tuesday's leadership meeting. "If you can't get something done, then you need to highlight who's obstructing it, and I don't think it does us any good to take one more vote."

Last week, 31 Democrats signed on to a letter to Democratic leaders, drafted by Reps. Jim Matheson (Utah), Melissa Bean (Ill.), Glenn Nye (Va.) and Gary Peters (Mich.), calling for a one-year extension of all the tax cuts.

Since the letter was sent, roughly a half-dozen more Members have told Matheson they support that position, Matheson's spokesman Alyson Heyrend said.

Earlier in the day. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer did not rule out the possibility that leaders would go ahead with a middle-class tax cut bill even if the Senate fails to act, but he reiterated that he wanted "to see what the Senate can do" before committing to a strategy.

"I think that will have great effect on what Members here believe ought to be done or can be done," the Maryland Democrat said.

Still, a House vote is looking less likely, given how fractured Democrats in that chamber are on the issue.

One leadership aide said Democratic leaders had not sent out a whip notice to determine where Members were on a middle-class extension — or any other tax cut proposal — and that there were no immediate plans to do so, suggesting that a floor debate is not imminent.

And with the elections approaching, leaders also are grappling with growing pressure from their rank-and-file Members who simply want to pass a CR and get back to their districts. Hoyer insisted Tuesday that the House would be in session at least through the end of next week, as both chambers eyed an Oct. 1 exit.

"There's nobody here that doubts that our Members — Republicans and Democrats — would like to be in their districts talking to their constituents," Hoyer said. "After all, they have to ask them to be re-hired. So they want to be back there."

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