As they head into the 2012 campaign, Democrats are changing their definition of what it means to be rich. Forget about families making $250,000 a year. Today, the party is only interested in millionaires.
In speeches across the country, President Obama has vigorously demanded that “millionaires and billionaires” pay “their fair share” in taxes. Last month, the White House said tax reform should ensure that billionaires such as Warren Buffett pay at least as much of their income to the Internal Revenue Service as middle-class taxpayers do.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday called for a five percent surtax on Americans making more than $1 million to pay for President Obama's jobs bill.
Reality check: Interactive looks at question of who bears the tax burden.
The ‘fiscal cliff’ in graphs and GIFs
And on Wednesday came clear evidence of this shift: Senate Democratic leaders scrapped Obama’s proposal to cover the cost of his jobs bill by raising taxes on income over $250,000 a year, the old Democratic standard for defining the wealthy. Instead, they are proposing a 5.6 percent surtax on annual income of more than $1 million.
Democrats say their new focus is intended to bolster support for Obama’s jobs package. But its more important purpose is to clarify the party’s economic agenda heading into next year’s election.
Democrats have long argued that, in addition to cutting government spending, lawmakers should ask people at the top of the income spectrum to pay more in taxes to help tame the national debt. But setting the dividing line at $250,000, as Obama did during the 2008 campaign, “fuzzies the picture,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the leading architect of the surtax proposal. “There are lots of people who either make $250,000 or are close” to it, Schumer said, particularly small-business owners and dual-income couples living in high-cost urban areas.
“If we’re able to draw a very clear line — people above a million dollars should pay their fair share — it’s much easier to win that argument,” said Schumer, who is also in charge of political messaging for Democrats hoping to maintain control of the Senate. “And I think we’re winning it. For the first time since Ronald Reagan, we’re beginning to turn the tax debate around.”
Republicans scoffed Wednesday at the ploy, which Democrats acknowledge is unlikely to succeed in its immediate goal of rallying support for Obama’s $447 billion jobs package. Several Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), oppose increased spending in the bill at least as much as the tax hikes Obama urged as a way of covering the cost. No Republican is likely to vote for the measure, making it impossible for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to muster the 60 votes needed to avert a filibuster when he opens debate on the bill as soon as next week.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democratic leaders of reworking the bill “not to grow bipartisan support” but “to sharpen its political edge.” Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Democrats should focus on identifying “areas of common ground” with Republicans “to create a better environment for job creation” instead of floating “desperate tax-hike gimmicks . . . to cover up divisions within the Democratic caucus.”