In a surprising power play by Harry Reid, Democrats just managed the unthinkable: They passed an initiative through the United States Senate by a simple majority vote. The plan, which extends the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, will never get through the GOP-controlled House, but Dems will be able to use it to cast Republicans as opponents of middle class tax relief.

The Senate voted just now by 51-48 to pass the Democratic plan to extend the Bush tax cuts on all income up to $250,000. That came just after the GOP plan to extend tax rates on all earners was defeated on a simple majority vote in the Senate.

To be clear: Republicans opposed the Dem plan on the grounds that it excluded only income above $250,000 earned by two percent of taxpayers.

This came after Mitch McConnell agreed this morning to majority votes on both plans, apparently because he didn’t think Harry Reid had enough votes to pass his. It’s a rare day that McConnell is outmaneuvered in the Senate. But this time, he was: Reid held on to even those vulnerable Dems in very tough races who held the line despite weeks of taunting from Republicans that supporting the Dem tax cut plan would allow GOPers to portray Dems as “tax hikers.”

The votes were mostly for show, but they made for a very good show indeed: They will clarify the choice voters face in this election. Today’s activitives kick this over to the House, where the House GOP had planned to hold a vote on its own plan to extend all the tax cuts, but will now hold one on the Dem plan to extend only the middle class ones, too.

Dems hope to put pressure on House Republicans by demanding that they support the Dem plan, by arguing that the Senate has passed it and the President is ready to sign it. “Make no mistake: with the Senate’s action, House Republicans are the only roadblocks standing between the middle class and a tax cut bill that the President will sign,” Nancy Pelosi said in an emailed statement.

Republicans will also use today’s votes — and the coming ones in the House — to frame their election year case that Democrats are raising taxes on “job creators” in the middle of a bad economy. And they continue to insist that they win the argument by labeling Dems as unrepentant tax hikers.

But Dems accomplished a key political goal: They managed to separate the battle over the middle class cuts from the battle over the cuts on income just on the top two percent — something Republicans had worked hard to prevent from happening.

In so doing, Dems will be able to argue that Republicans will not agree to extend the cuts on income up to $250,000 that everyone enjoys — which can now be extended if House Republicans agree to it — because they’re ardently committed to keeping rates low on income above that amount earned by one out of every 50 taxpayers. This will buttress the Dem argument, in the Congressional and presidential races, that Republicans are holding middle class tax relief hostage to protect the wealth of the rich — painting a sharper contrast between the parties’ priorities than may have been possible only a few hours ago.


UPDATE: President Obama’s statement:

With the Senate’s vote, the House Republicans are now the only people left in Washington holding hostage the middle-class tax cuts for 98% of Americans and nearly every small business owner. The last thing a typical middle class family can afford is a $2,200 tax hike at the beginning of next year. It’s time for House Republicans to drop their demand for another $1 trillion giveaway to the wealthiest Americans and give our families and small businesses the financial security and certainty that they need. Our economy isn’t built from the top-down, it’s built from a strong and growing middle class, and that’s who we should be fighting for.