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Democratic leaders in both chambers face a hard sell this week in persuading their rank and file to back the deal reached by Republicans and the White House to pass a two-year extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for a one-year extension of unemployment insurance.
President Barack Obama outlined a framework for the deal in a meeting Monday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Obama said after the meeting that while he was “sympathetic” to the House and Senate Democrats who wanted to force a political fight — even if it means letting the cuts lapse — he is “not willing to let working families in this country become collateral damage in political warfare.”
But a number of Democratic aides said it will be imperative for Obama to personally sell Members on why the agreement he cut in behind-the-scenes talks with GOP leaders is the best way forward.
Aides expect that Obama will have to make a personal appearance at one or more caucus meetings on both sides of the Capitol prior to a vote on the tax package.
“He’s going to have to make the case,” one Democratic aide said.
Vice President Joseph Biden will make an appearance at Tuesday’s Senate Democratic policy lunch to begin that process.
In addition to extending all of the tax cuts for two years, the bill would also include a partial repeal of the estate tax, a set of tax extenders Democrats sought to pass all year and key tax provisions of Obama’s stimulus bill, most notably the “make work pay” tax credit.
But the estate tax, Democrats being forced to back out of their campaign pledge to extend only middle-class tax cuts, and other GOP provisions will make the deal a hard sell.
While Reid and Durbin have come to terms with the fact that they did not have the votes to break a GOP filibuster of a middle-class-only bill — and that allowing all the cuts to lapse is politically dangerous — other Democrats have not.
For instance, following the defeat of two middle-class tax cut proposals on Saturday, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) vowed to stick to his guns in opposing a full extension.
“We are going to continue this fight until we achieve our goal: a permanent extension of tax cuts for the middle class and no tax cuts” for the wealthy, he said on Saturday.
“We think pressure will continue to build on Republican Senators. ... We expect two, three, four, five, 10 Republicans to peel off because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) added.
How widespread opposition to a full extension of the tax cuts is within in Reid’s caucus is unclear; aides said that while Durbin has not yet begun whipping the issue, it appears there should be enough support for the White House deal.
But Schumer has the support of a sizable vocal minority that appears content to let the tax cuts lapse Jan. 1, betting that having a united GOP repeatedly defeat middle-class tax cuts will make the case that Republicans are simply looking out for the interests of the wealthy.
Schumer can also count on at least one Republican to vote against the deal, regardless of how long it is. Retiring Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) told the Aspen Institute that as he prepares to exit the Senate, he fears so much for the country’s financial well-being that he will oppose any extension of the President George W. Bush tax cuts, according to the Washington Post.
“As I look at my experience, I believe that if this thing goes through and we extend it, we will kick this thing down the road. ... It’s completely irresponsible,” he said.
The prospect for an easy sell in the House is equally unclear.
The deal faces a backlash among liberals in the House, who have strongly resisted the idea of trading away a key part of Obama’s campaign platform — ending tax cuts for the rich.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) issued a statement Monday calling the plan “fiscally irresponsible” and “grossly unfair.” Welch was circulating a letter to Pelosi, seeking signatures from Democrats opposed to the deal.
But with Senate Republicans blocking middle-class tax cuts and unemployment assistance and House Republicans set to take over the chamber in a few weeks, liberals’ clout is rapidly diminishing.
If Republicans and Pelosi embrace the package, they should have enough votes between them to pass it.
The tax cut fight will be the backdrop for what will be, particularly in the Senate, a week heavy on political posturing but light on actual legislating.
Reid was expected to file cloture Monday to force votes on a series of bills Democrats have sought to push through, including the DREAM Act immigration reform measure and a 9/11 firefighters health bill.
The move would set up votes on the measures Wednesday, which would give the Senate enough time to conduct a rare impeachment trial of Judge Thomas Porteous beginning Tuesday morning.
None of the bills, which also include a collective-bargaining measure for firefighters and a one-time $250 cost-of-living adjustment payment to seniors, is expected to muster the 60 votes needed to break a GOP filibuster, although agreement could be reached on the $250 COLA payment measure.
Given that schedule, aides said the earliest debate on taxes could begin is Thursday.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.