Senate votes to extend Bush-era tax cuts to incomes under $250,000
WASHINGTON – In a largely symbolic step with sharp political implications, the Senate voted Wednesday to extend the Bush-era tax cuts only to the first $250,000 in family income, rejecting a GOP plan that would have set no income limits on the tax cuts.
With Vice President Joe Biden presiding, Democrats – including U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Claire McCaskill of Missouri – mustered a slim majority of 51 votes (to 48 against) to back up their pledge to extend the expiring tax cuts for the middle class, but not for the wealthy.
While the vote allowed both sides to send an election-year message on the Bush-era tax cuts, the Senate bill itself faced a dead end in the GOP-led House, which can kill it on procedural grounds. The House is expected to approve a bill similar to the Senate GOP plan – defeated Wednesday, 45-54 – to extend the Bush cuts for all taxpayers.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., backed the GOP plan and opposed the Democratic alternative. McCaskill and Durbin voted against the Republican plan. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is still recovering from a stroke, did not vote.
The Senate-passed bill would extend the tax cuts – which with no action will expire on Dec. 31 – to couples with incomes under $250,000 or individuals under $200,000. Durbin said that the cut would apply to that part of the incomes of higher-earning taxpayers.
“Let’s focus on restoring the tax cuts for that portion of American families and workers who need a helping hand” while the economy recovers, Durbin argued. “But let’s not go all the way; let’s not restore the tax cuts for those in the highest-income categories.”
While Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., argued that the bill will put Senate negotiators on a level playing field in negotiating with the House in the post-election lame-duck session, Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., denounced the Democratic bill as “a purely political exercise” that “is not about the economy. It’s about the election.”
But McCaskill called the vote “a win for Missouri’s middle-class families who can’t afford a tax increase right now.” In a statement, she said she would “fight as hard as I know how to make sure these tax cuts remain in place for the folks who need them most. Now it’s up to the U.S. House to follow our lead.”
On the opposite side, Blunt characterized the tax-cut extension as a “small business tax hike” because businesses that report incomes over $250,000 would face higher taxes. He called on the White House to “work with Congress to extend the current tax rates for all Americans immediately and focus on responsible, comprehensive tax reform to give businesses the confidence they need to invest and grow.”
In a statement, President Barack Obama accused House Republicans of “holding hostage the middle-class tax cuts for 98 percent 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.”
But McConnell and other Republicans charged that Obama and the Democrats were more interested in scoring political points than in helping boost the still-ailing U.S. economy. With Biden presiding over the Senate debate, McConnell pointed out that – when the Bush tax cuts were about to expire in December 2010 – Biden had asked Republicans to help extend all the Bush-era tax cuts to stimulate the economy.
“Today, the economy is growing slower than it was in December 2010,” McConnell said. “This is more about the election than it is the economy. And I’m sure a few arms have been twisted in order to get a result.” But Democratic leader Reid argued that the nation’s economic situation is far different now than it was two years ago.
On the vote to approve the Democratic tax plan, one Democrat – Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia – voted against, as did Joseph Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who caucuses with Democrats. There was also a small crossover on the earlier vote to reject the GOP-backed tax plan, with Democrat Mark Pryor of Arkansas supporting it and two Republicans – Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Susan Collins of Maine – voting against the GOP amendment.
Blunt and many other Senate Republicans argued that the Democratic plan, because it would not block a previously scheduled increase in the federal estate tax, would in effect impose a higher estate tax, or “death tax,” that would have an unfair impact on farmers, ranchers and others.
Under the rates that would expire at year’s end, property worth up to $5 million is exempt from estate tax, and taxes on the rest can’t exceed 35 percent. If that expires, rates would revert to 1990s levels, up to 55 percent.
Blunt quoted a Missouri Farm Bureau letter saying that the higher estate-tax exemption “is not high enough to protect a typical farm or ranch from estate taxes considering land values and the cost of machinery, equipment and farm buildings.”
But Democrats contended that the estate-tax was a separate issue that could be dealt with in another tax bill. McCaskill went further, saying she has introduced a bill – which she said mirrored the GOP-backed position – that would lock in the current estate-tax rate for at least one more year, through 2013.
Durbin, putting an Illinois spin on his vote, said the Senate “stood with middle-class families across Illinois by voting to ensure their taxes will not go up at the end of the year.” Under the plan, he said, 4.8 million Illinois families would save an average of $1,600.
In addition to extending the Bush-era tax cuts to individuals who make up to $200,000 and families that earn as much as $250,000, the bill would extend three tax credits: a credit that helps some families claim up to $2,500 for college tuition costs; the Earned Income Tax Credit, which gives assistance to working families who earned less than $49,078 last year; and the Child Tax Credit, which provides working families tax relief for children.