WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted Thursday 234-188 for a tax cut for the middle class and the poor — but not the very rich — a vote meant mostly as a political statement to give Democrats talking points back home.
The plan, which would extend George W. Bush-era tax cuts for individuals earning less than $200,000 annually and couples making less than $250,000, is going nowhere in the Senate. A temporary extension of all the cuts for every income class is considered more likely to win enactment by the end of this month; otherwise they expire Dec. 31.
Republicans were furious that the House Democrats staged the vote.
"I'm trying to catch my breath so I don't refer to this maneuver going on today as chicken crap, all right?" said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, who will become speaker of the House next month. "But this is nonsense. All right? The election was one month ago. We're 23 months from the next election and the political games have already started, trying to set up the next election."
Democrats protested such assertions.
"This isn't about politics. This is about people," insisted House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin, D-Mich.
The real politics of tax cuts, though, was being waged behind closed doors in a nearby Capitol Hill office building, where two Republican lawmakers, two Democrats and two Obama administration officials were trying to hammer out a tax-cut compromise.
They hope to make recommendations soon. Congress wants to adjourn by Dec. 17 and has a huge agenda to tackle before then: providing funds for the government to keep running, voting on the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and voting on a military spending bill possibly repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in uniform, among other business.
Senate Republicans vow that until the tax cuts and funding the government for next year are resolved, they won't let anything else be considered.
The House vote on taxes, and the sharply partisan debate that preceded it, seemed out of place in a Congress where the mood has shifted toward conciliatory tones since the Nov. 2 elections. Republicans gained 63 House seats and six in the Senate, and President Barack Obama earlier this week met with leaders of both parties and pledged a new, cooperative environment.
But in the lame-duck House, where Democrats hold a 255-179 seat majority until year's end, liberals courting their voter-bloc base seemed to be sending the White House and party leaders a strong message that they don't want to yield to GOP terms.
"The mistake in the midterm election is that people ran away from the base," said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo. "There's a lesson to be learned, that when you do that, you don't succeed. You end up with no base."
Closing the debate was Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arguably the left's most powerful figure in Washington. She tied the tax cut vote to the stalemate over extending unemployment benefits. Money for that program ran out Wednesday.
The middle class and the poor need that tax break more than ever, she said: "It indeed makes a difference." People are pleading with lawmakers, "looking for jobs, looking for security for their families," Pelosi said.
Republicans insisted that small businesses would be hurt if the top rates, now 33 percent and 35 percent, went back to pre-Bush levels of 36 percent and 39.6 percent. Small businesses often pay taxes at individual income tax rates rather than corporate rates.
"Democrats are targeting the very employers we need hiring more workers and buying more equipment — not paying more taxes," charged Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has estimated that fewer than 3 percent of small business owners would be affected by an increase in the top rates, and the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center agreed.
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