WASHINGTON – More Democrats joined Republicans on Wednesday in calling for the preservation of tax breaks for Americans of every income level, bolting this election season from President Barack Obama's plan to preserve cuts for families who earn less than $250,000 and let taxes rise for the wealthiest Americans. But Obama placed the blame for the stalled proposal squarely on Republicans.
"They want to hold these middle class tax cuts hostage until they get an additional tax cut for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans," the president said in afternoon remarks.
"Doesn't it make sense for us to move forward with the tax cuts that we all agree on?" Obama added. "We should be able to extend, right now, middle-class tax relief on the first $250,000 of income."
Nervous Democrats are among those with concerns about the president's plan.
"We should not be raising taxes in the middle of a recession," Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., who's facing tough odds in his bid for a fourth term, wrote in a terse letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"It is essential that we keep things as they are in the short term," said Rep. Travis W. Childers, D-Miss., another conservative incumbent in a tight race, whose district, like Marshall's, voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential race.
For this pair, one press release announcing their opposition to Obama's plan was not enough. They were two of 31 jittery Democrats who signed a letter urging Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to abandon the Obama plan and extend to everyone the Bush-era tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year, according to one of its authors, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
House and Senate leaders aren't saying which plan they'll propose, or whether they'll even bother with the debate in the charged political atmosphere leading up to the Nov. 2 midterm elections. All 435 House seats, 37 in the Senate and the Democratic majorities in both houses are on the line.
The divisions extended well into Democratic ranks on Capitol Hill. Moderates and conservatives in tight races were skittish about the prospect of being branded tax hikers at the height of election season if a bill to let taxes rise for the wealthy is brought up for debate. Other Democrats said they relish the idea of holding a vote to extend only the middle class tax cuts and daring Republicans to vote against it.
"I want to smoke some people out," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., a supporter of the Obama plan who nonetheless said he was open to compromise.
Common ground was less the issue than whether punting the matter until the end of the year might be politically helpful.
Democratic leaders would not commit to a full debate or a vote in the handful of weeks before Congress leaves town for the campaign trail. Asked directly Wednesday whether Congress should take up the tax cut issue before or after Election Day, Pelosi did not answer. Her lieutenant, Hoyer, sounded open to discussing compromises but did not say when those talks might happen.
Republicans, meanwhile, stayed together on their tax-cuts-for-all message and pressed for action before leaving town in October to go home to campaign. House Republican leader John Boehner, who over the weekend had suggested he would vote for Obama's plan if that were the only option offered him, stuck to the party's message Wednesday.
"If we're serious about helping our economy this month we need to stop the tax hikes, and we need to cut spending," Boehner said.
The expiring tax cuts are the most sweeping in a generation, affecting taxpayers at every income level. Obama wants to make the tax cuts permanent for individuals making less than $200,000 and married couples making less than $250,000.
Republicans support a full renewal of all tax cuts, regardless of income, despite a 10-year cost to the government of about $700 billion above Obama's plan.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.