Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have become adept at masking their differences of opinion. But when it comes to whether the House should vote this week to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, the two leaders have appeared at odds, and up until recently they haven't seemed to care who knows it.
With the House poised to adjourn as soon as today, a pre-election vote on the tax cuts appears unlikely. Even so, Pelosi, who is facing pressure from liberal Members, has been reluctant to take the prospect of a vote off the table. Hoyer, meanwhile, has said he sees little, if any, reason for the House to hold a vote before the midterm elections if the Senate can't act as well. He has also said Democrats don't 'need to have a vote to let the American people know where [they] stand.'
House Democrats were expected to discuss the issue at a Tuesday afternoon leadership meeting and an afternoon Caucus meeting today before making a final call.
'She may be a bit more sensitive to what the progressive wing of the party is asking her to do and progressive Members,' one Democratic source said of Pelosi. 'So she may just be reluctant to take it off the table until it's absolutely clear.'
Late last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced he would put off debate on the issue until after the midterm elections. Pelosi has been less committal, saying Friday that Democratic leaders 'retain the right to proceed as we choose' and would 'take it one day at a time.' And Tuesday morning, Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi confidant, said he would still like to see a vote on middle-class tax cuts before the House adjourns this week, adding that a vote would send an 'important signal.'
Democratic aides strongly dispute the notion that there has been any disagreement between Pelosi and Hoyer on how to approach the tax cut issue. And from a policy standpoint, both Members want the same outcome: They support extending tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 a year and families earning less than $250,000, while letting the cuts expire for those in higher income brackets.
'I don't see any head-butting,' one Democratic leadership aide said. 'I see two people who share the same view about what we need to do ahead. But they may use different words.'
Hoyer downplayed the idea that he and Pelosi had been at odds, telling reporters Tuesday that they are 'in absolute agreement ... and Democrats are united ... on no tax increases on the first $200,000 of every American's income ... and no taxes on the first $250,000 of every American family's income.'
But aides who have been privy to private leadership discussions on the subject acknowledge that Pelosi and Hoyer come at the issue from different standpoints, given their different Caucus loyalties. Hoyer has close ties to moderates, while Pelosi is aligned with her party's liberal flank.
'Hoyer understands how most of the moderates feel, that they don't want to take another tough vote just to walk the plank if the Senate's not going to move. ... He is very sensitive to that,' said one Democratic aide with close ties to moderates, many of whom have been pushing to postpone the tax cut vote until after the midterms. While liberals want to take the issue up now ' believing it would help the party on Nov. 2 ' many moderates and vulnerable Democrats are reluctant to take on another divisive issue.
The aide said Pelosi 'personally would like to see the vote happen' because she is passionate about the issue and is 'probably a little more torn' than Hoyer about the prospect of postponing a vote until after the elections.
On Friday, 46 liberal-leaning Members ' led by Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) ' sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to schedule a middle-class tax cut vote before the House adjourns. One Democratic source said it could be viewed as 'a slap in the face' to those Members if Pelosi were to take a vote off the table before Democrats had a chance to discuss the issue again as a Caucus, noting that liberals are a 'community of Members that she needs to be very cognizant of.'
'She does not like there to be a perception within the Caucus that she's making decisions without the input of the entire Caucus,' the source said.
Moderates have been equally as vocal about putting the vote off until after the elections. At a Thursday Caucus meeting, retiring Blue Dog Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.) told his colleagues that Democrats need to get out of town ' and not stick around for votes on tax cuts ' if they are going to save their seats.
Earlier this month, 38 moderates wrote to Pelosi calling for a short-term extension of the tax cuts for all income brackets. And 47 House Democrats ' led by Rep. John Adler (N.J.) ' sent a letter to Pelosi late last week calling for an extension of Bush-era tax cuts on investment income.
A senior House aide acknowledged that leadership gains a strategic advantage by refusing to commit publicly to a strategy. Hoyer suggested Tuesday that a vote could happen before the end of the week.
'You never tip your hand,' the aide said. 'You have a lot of interest on this issue. There's a lot of discussion about it. To come out and say one way or another weakens your positions.'
Democratic aides privately concede that a vote is all but certain not to happen this week. Still, they said Democrats will continue to talk about the issue in the runup to Nov. 2 to draw a contrast with Republicans, who want an across-the-board extension of the tax cuts for all income brackets.
'Whether or not there's a vote, it's an issue we can still talk about, and another way to outline the choice,' the leadership aide said. 'Whether it's on or off, we can still talk about it.'