WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress are largely united on the major issues before them this month: extending tax cuts for the middle class and the poor, but not the rich, before they expire Dec. 31, and giving more help to the long-term unemployed.
Yet they're unable to enact either provision because of united Republican opposition in the Senate. The Senate plans two test votes Saturday on the Democrats' tax-cut extension plans, and GOP resistance is expected to block both efforts until the Bush-era tax reductions are extended for every income group.
While most Democrats blame Republicans for the impasse, a lot of liberals are grumbling that President Barack Obama is hurting their cause by not fighting strongly and instead actively seeking compromise.
"At a moment when they could have celebrated victory, this White House incredibly chose to wave the white flag, signaling to Republicans that they will take any deal, no matter how bad, including borrowing billions to extend tax cuts for the richest Americans," Adam Green and Stephanie Taylor, the co-founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
MoveOn.org, another liberal group, says at the top of its website, "We want Obama back." It urges supporters: "Say no to millionaire bailouts and bring back the Obama of 2008 — the tough, smart progressive who inspired millions."
Congressional Democrats are reluctant to go that far publicly, but many of them have made it clear that they want the party — and its leaders — to fight harder for its principles.
"There is a message for Democrats from this vote: Democrats should act like Democrats," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Thursday after the House of Representatives approved extending tax reductions for the middle class and poor.
He was one of 231 House Democrats who voted to continue the Bush-era tax rates for individuals who earn less than $200,000 a year and couples who make less than $250,000, but not those who are wealthier.
The Senate plans to vote Saturday on cutting off debate on the House-passed terms, and on ending debate on an alternative that would extend tax cuts for everyone who earns up to $1 million.
Since both efforts need 60 votes to shut down debate under Senate rules, and Democrats control only 58, both bids are expected to fall short. In fact, several Democrats may side with the Republicans.
"Why the president doesn't take a strong stand on this, I have no idea. I don't get it. He has nothing to lose," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego and a leading scholar of Congress.
The White House says that Obama still wants to let the tax cuts for the wealthy expire, and he wants jobless benefits extended, too; they expired this week.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president "applauds the House" for its tax cut vote. But, he said, the bipartisan talks are necessary because "Republicans have made it clear that they won't pass a middle-class extension without also extending tax cuts for the wealthy." And they apparently have enough Senate votes to impose their will.
Obama has signaled that he's eager to deal, saying four days after the Nov. 2 elections, "Something's got to be done, and I believe there's room for us to compromise and get it done together."
Since Tuesday, top administration officials have huddled with lawmakers of both parties to forge a compromise, most likely one that will extend all the tax cuts and jobless benefits temporarily.
What's important to remember, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is that the Democrats' fight is one for the core of the party's philosophy.
"They want to say this is class warfare? In a way it is," she said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., explained:
"We should use it (as) a measure for everything that we do: What does it do to create jobs? What does it do to reduce the deficit?"
Extending unemployment benefits gives people money they spend right away, Pelosi said. "It injects demand into the economy. It creates jobs to help reduce the deficit."
In addition, she said, the same Republicans who refuse to extend jobless benefits because they say it costs too much are willing to spend $700 billion over the next 10 years to keep the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy.
"Giving $700 billion to the wealthiest people in America does add $700 billion to the deficit. And the record and history show it does not create jobs," Pelosi said.
Why, liberals ask, doesn't the White House display the same passion?
This week, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is running an ad in Iowa, traditionally the site of the nation's first presidential nominating caucuses. It has a clip of Obama saying in May 2007 that the tax cuts for the wealthy will expire.
"Tell President Obama, 'Keep your promise,' " the ad says. " 'Fight. Don't cave on tax cuts.' "
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