Democrats and Republicans conducted an exercise in political theater Wednesday by holding Senate votes on their competing tax proposals, even though both appeared destined for failure.
The Democratic bill--which would extend tax cuts through 2013 for all individuals except those who jointly earn over $250,000, passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate by a vote of 51 to 48. The bill saved Democrats the embarrassment of having a measure supported by the president fail in the chamber they control, but the bill has virtually no hope of passage in the Republican-controlled House.
The Republican bill, which would have extended tax cuts for all individuals, earlier failed by a vote of 45 to 54.
"We're in the middle of a partisan war all welled up in the crucible of an election year for president, and as a result, we're gonna have two tax votes today that don't pass," Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said on the Senate floor prior to the vote.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky lamented that the GOP bill would fail, but added during his Senate floor speech that the "good news" is "this new convoluted Democratic bill will never make it to the president's desk."
Republicans argued that the Democratic bill would extend death or inheritance taxes and raise taxes on small businesses, as well as on the wealthiest earners. Democrats said the Republican bill would fail to protect the middle class and would shield the wealthy.
Today's votes leave Congress in the same position as when it began--pressed to agree on a way to extend these 2001 and 2003 tax cuts before they expire in January 2013.
The Democratic bill's passage fuels the party's talking points on the subject of middle class tax cuts. "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 percent of Americans and nearly every small business owner," President Barack Obama said in a statement following the vote. That sentiment was publicly repeated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other Democratic leaders immediately following the vote.
Republicans took up the opposing mantle. "With unemployment still above 8 percent, the only vote on taxes that matters to the American people is a vote to stop the small business tax hike the president wants that Ernst & Young says will cost our economy 700,000 jobs," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement. "The House will vote next week to stop that tax hike, and until the Senate does the same, the threat to our economy remains."
Democrats enraged Republicans this month by announcing their willingness to allow tax cuts and spending provisions to expire if Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the wealthy, potentially inching the country off a "fiscal cliff."