WASHINGTON – After meeting with President Barack Obama Thursday, Democratic leaders in Congress said they plan to hold a series of politically charged votes to extend middle-class tax cuts while letting tax cuts for the wealthy expire.
Republicans are expected to block the plan, leaving both sides back at square one as they try to negotiate a deal to spare families at every income level from a big tax increase in January.
Democratic officials said Obama did not embrace a particular approach to the tax cuts in his Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders. He indicated he wanted to wait for a meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders on Nov. 30 before staking out a position.
"I think there's a reality here which is that while it might be best to continue the middle-class tax cuts and raise taxes on higher income people, the votes are not there to do that," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats. "I think everybody's got to deal with a stark reality which is, are we going to leave here knowing that we haven't come to an agreement and that everybody's taxes are going to go up Jan. 1?"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would like to schedule competing votes on the Senate floor. One would be on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's bill to make all the tax cuts permanent; the other would be on a Democratic plan to extend only the middle class tax cuts. Neither is expected to pass.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she plans to hold a similar vote on extending the middle-class tax cuts in early December.
"We're united in recognizing we have to protect the middle class," Reid said of Senate Democrats.
McConnell said, "Votes structured for symbolic reasons in December won't prevent a tax hike in January. It's not enough to talk about the problem of the looming tax hike on families and hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the country, we have to fix it."
Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress want to extend the tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 and married couples making less than $250,000. Republicans and a growing number of rank-and-file Democrats want to extend them all.
After congressional elections in which Republicans won control of the House and gained seats in the Senate, Obama signaled a willingness to compromise with Republicans. But Democrats are struggling to come up with a unified position.
Congress returned this week for a lame-duck session in which Democrats still have majorities in both the House and Senate. However, they will need Republican support to get the 60 votes necessary to pass a tax bill in the Senate.
Democratic leaders left their White House meeting with Obama Thursday without a game plan for negotiating with Republicans. Later, Senate Democrats met behind closed doors for more than two hours, but didn't agree on a strategy beyond trying to prevent a tax increase for the middle class.
"Most think that it makes sense to maintain the tax cuts for those below $200,000, couples below $250,000, and there's a lot of discussion about all kinds of other options and there's basically no decision made,'" said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Obama had invited GOP leaders to the White House meeting, to start laying the groundwork for a bipartisan compromise, but the Republicans asked to reschedule the meeting after Thanksgiving.
Republicans have been much more unified in their position. Most say their first choice is to make all the tax cuts permanent; some have said they are open to a temporary extension of all the tax cuts.
"While some in Congress have a strange desire to raise taxes on hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the country, Republicans and a growing chorus of Democrats believe that no one should have the government take even more out of their paycheck next year," McConnell said.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.