By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 13, 2010; 11:24 PM
Congressional Republicans said Monday that they will resist President Obama's plan to allow Bush-era tax breaks for the nation's wealthiest households to expire. They vowed to fight to preserve the cuts for all Americans.
Obama has argued for extending the tax breaks - which President George W. Bush approved in 2001 and 2003 and are set to expire this year - only to household incomes below $250,000 a year. But GOP leaders in the House and Senate said that any plan to raise taxes during an economic downturn would harm many small-business owners.
"Americans have had it. They're tired of Democrat leaders in Washington pursuing the same government-driven programs that have done nothing but add to the debt and the burden of government. We can't allow this administration to demand that small-business owners in this country pay for its own fiscal recklessness," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday in a speech on the Senate floor. "And that's why I'm introducing legislation today that ensures that no one in this country will pay higher income taxes next year than they are right now."
McConnell's bill would permanently reduce the estate tax, as well as codify Bush-era reductions in income tax rates and the alternative-minimum tax - an addition that would push the total cost of the package to well more than $4 trillion by 2020.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) echoed that view, vowing in a statement to "do everything in my power to stop President Obama and Speaker Pelosi from raising taxes on working families, small-business people and investors."
The statements came in response to remarks Sunday by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who jolted members of both parties when he said he might vote to let the tax breaks expire for the richest households if it would be the only way to prevent a middle-class tax increase.
Boehner's comments, made during an appearance on the CBS program "Face the Nation," were at odds with the widely held Republican view that the cuts should be extended for everyone, whether they are millionaires or school teachers.
Many in the political world suspect that Boehner was attempting to rob Democrats of a potent campaign line: that the GOP is holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to breaks for the very wealthy.
Boehner's statement also reflects the difficult choice congressional Republicans could face. In the House, the minority party has little control over what legislation comes to the floor. If Democrats called for a vote on Obama's plan - which would permanently extend the Bush cuts for all but the top 2 percent of households - Republicans would be forced to accept the partial extension or go on record as opposing benefits for the vast majority of taxpayers.
One option for House Republicans, GOP sources said, would be for Boehner and Cantor to use one of the few procedural tools at their disposal: They could call for a vote on whether to send the Obama plan back to the Ways and Means Committee, with instructions to add the cuts for those who pay the highest rate. House Republicans have won such motions in the past and could prevail in this case, depending on the degree of Democratic resistance.
House Democrats remain deeply divided over the issue, with a raft of Democrats in difficult reelection campaigns signaling growing resistance to raising taxes during an election year.
One senior House Democrat said Boehner's comments were "a political stunt, but it creates an opening" for Democrats to take the high road. They can use the tax vote to show that they made a tough political choice in order to take a serious bite out of the federal deficit.
Boehner and his House GOP allies may not have to decide what to do until after November's midterm elections. House Democrats want the Senate to move first on a tax-cut package, knowing that Democrats in that chamber are also divided and that prospects for a 60-vote consensus are remote.
The latest member of the Senate Democratic caucus to defect on the Obama plan is Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who told the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce in his home state on Monday that he wants to extend all the cuts temporarily, until the economy recovers.
"The more money we leave in private hands, the quicker our economic recovery will be," he said.
Obama, during a meeting Monday with voters in Fairfax, alluded to the confusion in the Republican ranks, saying Democrats are "in this wrestling match with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell" about whether to preserve tax breaks for a tiny fraction of wealthy households. He noted that keeping the middle-class tax cuts, meanwhile, has broad bipartisan appeal.
"We could get that done this week," Obama said.