Senate Poised For Key Test Vote On Tax-Cut Deal
The tax package negotiated by President Obama and Republican congressional leaders survived a key test Monday, when the Senate voted overwhelmingly to end debate and move the bill to final consideration in the next day or two.
Voting was held open to accommodate senators delayed in returning to Washington due to inclement weather in the Midwest. The bill needed 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle. It achieved that level quickly in a long roll call. The final vote was 83-15.
Nearly all Republicans supported the measure. Dissenters included Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Patrick Leahy of Vermont; Mark Udall of Colorado; and Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats. Sanders has been one of the bill's most vocal opponents and staged an old-fashioned filibuster for more than eight hours on Friday in protest.
Obama, addressing reporters at a short White House briefing following the Senate action, said the vote "proves that both parties can, in fact, work together to grow our economy and look out for the American people."
The bill is expected to face more opposition in the House, where opposition among Democrats has been strongest and could present the greatest challenge for the deal's prospects.
House Democrats object to the proposed extension of tax breaks for the wealthiest households (preferring to extend the cuts only to income below $250,000 a year). They also oppose another provision that would reinstate the estate tax but offer exemptions of up to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples, saying it is too much of a giveaway to the wealthy.
"I understand those concerns. I share some of them," Obama said. Nonetheless, he added, the plan "does many good things" for the economy and financially struggling Americans. "I urge the House of Representatives to act quickly," Obama said.
Using their majority in these final weeks of the lame-duck session, House Democrats might try to strip out the estate tax provision and replace it with one that takes a bigger fiscal bite out of large inheritances.
Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, on Monday told reporters the House would bring to the floor a tax plan "in some form." He said Democratic leaders likely will seek to amend "egregious" provisions such as the estate tax exemption, which he said would add $25 billion to the deficit only "to benefit the wealthiest 6,000 estates."
Monday's Senate vote tested not only the deal itself but Obama's new willingness to compromise with Republicans—and to sway reluctant fellow Democrats.
The deal would renew lapsed long-term unemployment benefits for 13 months in exchange for extending all the expiring Bush-era tax cuts for two years.
GOP lawmakers have insisted on continuing the tax cuts for all Americans, as well as keeping the generous tax exemption for multimillion-dollar estates.
"Democrats in Washington have argued that the solution to our nation’s economic problems was to give bureaucrats in Washington trillions of dollars and then have them spend it for us. But with this bipartisan compromise, we’re taking a different approach," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on the chamber floor Monday. "We're telling the American people to keep money that's rightfully theirs, so they can spend it and invest it as they please. This is an important shift, and the White House should be applauded for agreeing to it."
The Senate vote comes as three new polls sounding out the public's view of the tax-cut deal offered a somewhat murky picture.
A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that overall, 60 percent of those surveyed approved of the deal, while just 22 percent disapproved. Similarly, a Washington Post-ABC News polls found a 69 percent approval rate.
But the latest survey from USA TODAY/Gallup found the public less enthusiastic about the package: Just 49 percent of respondents said they supported the deal, while a third opposed it.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod told CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday that the White House is confident the deal will be passed by year's end, echoing comments made by Obama last week on NPR.
"Everybody understands what it would mean for the economy if we don't get this done," Axelrod said.
House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland predicted the House would approve a tax deal sometime after Senate passage this week.
"I think we'll pass a bill, as opposed to simply not passing anything," Hoyer said. But he acknowledged that "much consternation" exists among Democrats.
The White House has made the case that extending the tax cuts, as well as unemployment benefits, is crucial to keeping the economic recovery on track..
Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said private forecasters are in agreement that the package is needed.
"You saw them step forward and say that it would significantly raise the growth rate of the United States in the coming year if we were to pass it," he told NBC's Meet the Press.
On Friday, Obama sought former President Bill Clinton's help in selling the $858 billion tax-cut package to fellow Democrats.
"This is a much, much better agreement than would be reached were we to wait until January," Clinton said at a White House news conference with Obama by his side.
For his part, Obama was already looking forward to a much broader discussion about taxes, calling on Congress to consider simplifying the tax code this year.
NPR's David Welna contributed to this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.