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Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks for 8 hours against tax cuts, while Congressional Black Caucus joins opposition

By Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 12:34 AM

At 10:24 Friday morning, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont took to the floor of the Senate to share a few thoughts about the tax-cut plan brokered by President Obama and Republican leaders.

Well after the sun had set and most of his colleagues had flown home, Sanders was still sharing - about taxes, bad trade deals and "the crooks on Wall Street," among many other topics.

"China, China, CHINA!" he yelled at one point, stressing that the $14 trillion national debt was largely being financed by the Chinese government's decision to continue buying U.S. bonds.

By early evening Sanders took to reading letters from constituents who had been hit hard by the Great Recession.

Sanders yielded at times to Democratic colleagues who wanted to speak briefly against the plan, but otherwise he held the floor until nearly 7 p.m., his thick Brooklyn-born accent filling the chamber.

It looked a lot like a good old-fashioned filibuster, only Sanders wasn't actually stopping anything. Under a bipartisan deal reached Thursday, a vote would be held Monday on the tax deal no matter how long Sanders spoke or what he said Friday.

"You can call what I am doing today whatever you want, you it [sic] call it a filibuster, you can call it a very long speech," said Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. "I'm not here to set any great records or to make a spectacle. I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have got to do a lot better than this agreement provides."

The last time any senator spoke as long as Sanders did was in November 2003, when Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), then the minority whip, spoke more than nine hours all by himself to protest a proposal by Republicans to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominations. To help fill the hours, Reid even read from his autobiography.

Before that, the only other attempt at an old-school filibuster in the past two decades came from Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) in 1992, when he spoke for more than 15 hours against a tax provision that would close a typewriter plant in his state. D'Amato sang "South of the Border" at times, protesting how the typewriter plant was headed for Mexico.

As Sanders provided the emotional appeal against the tax deal in the Senate, House Democrats continued discussions about ways to amend the $858 billion package of tax-cut extensions and other efforts aimed at economic stimulus when it crosses the Capitol later next week.

"We are simply here to say that we want a fair deal," said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.). "You know, there was the New Deal under Roosevelt, and then there was a Fair Deal under Truman. Every new deal is not necessarily fair, and we see this new deal as not necessarily fair."

Payne was joined by other members of the Congressional Black Caucus - considered President Obama's most loyal backers - who announced that the "vast majority" of caucus members would oppose the plan as it is currently drafted.

Along with many other liberals, the CBC members said the estate tax provisions went too far, exempting up to $5 million per person and setting a top rate of 35 percent for larger estates.

That comes in addition to the two-year extension of all the Bush-era tax breaks, despite repeated pledges by Obama to only extend those benefits to the middle class.

Democrats have privately admitted that they were prepared for Obama and newly empowered Republicans to agree to an extension of tax breaks for the wealthy, but added that they never expected the generous estate tax deal and some other provisions in the package.

In the Senate, the bipartisan package gained momentum toward clearing a 60-vote hurdle Monday. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) endorsed the package Friday, saying it would make a "real difference in the lives of middle-class families" despite the benefits for millionaires. He highlighted provisions that would cut the payroll tax and a transit-commuter-tax benefit.

Final passage in the Senate could come by Tuesday, which is why Sanders abandoned his plans to fly home to Vermont on Friday and instead began his marathon. After yielding the floor at 6:59 p.m., Sanders was asked by reporters why he stopped speaking.

"I'm tired," he replied bluntly.

He also said he was unaware that, during his speech, former president Bill Clinton had endorsed the plan at a press conference with Obama. "I think they're wrong on this issue," he said. "I think they are selling the American people short."

Republicans have rejected any effort at altering what they consider a delicately crafted compromise, negotiated primarily between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

"The tax bill's done," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), McConnell's top deputy, told reporters Thursday.

Still, House Democrats are mulling how to use their still-massive majority in one last show of power before turning the chamber over to Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive speaker, and House Republicans in January.

One option would be for House Democrats to amend the bill to return the estate tax to its 2009 provisions - exemptions of up to $3.5 million per individual, with 45 percent as the top rate - and send it back to the Senate, daring them to oppose the overall package based on supporting multimillion-dollar estates. Another possible addition was extending tax credits for energy programs.

Sanders capped off his speech by calling for "a better proposal which better reflects the needs of the middle class and working families of our country and to me, most importantly, the children of our country."

"And with that, Madam President," Sanders said 8 hours, 35 minutes after he began, "I yield the floor."

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