Senate Tax Action: Symbolic, But Full or Empty?

Some regular readers might have thought I was a bit cavalier about the Senate vote late yesterday on the Democratic and Republican alternatives for dealing with the Bush tax cuts, which I mentioned in the Day’s End post. Certainly some observers–i.e., the folks at TalkingPointsMemo–thought it was a really, really big deal.

It could be a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty judgment call. On the one hand, as Ezra Klein emphasizes, it did represent a rare non-filibustered up-or-down majority vote in the Senate on an issue that is central to the differences between the two parties on fiscal, economic, and even philosophical grounds. It will also likely compel a House vote on the two plans that will place House Republicans on the record as holding a tax cut for all Americans hostage to an additional tax cut exclusively available to the very highest earners.

But on the other hand, the vote wasn’t filibustered because Mitch McConnell was publicly asserting that the law if enacted would be unconstitutional as a revenue measure that did not originate in the House. And as we all should know by now, the Republican rap is that the issue is not who gets how much in tax cuts, but whether taxes should be “raised” on anybody at a time like this. In other words, Republicans and conservative media refuse to treat the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as “current policy,” just as they’ve refused to accept that reality from the moment the cuts were first enacted. So perceptions of this vote and of upcoming fights in Congress on the so-called “Taxmageddon” that would supposedly occur at year’s end without some sort of agreement will just be part of the usual partisan back-and-forth on the campaign trail and in Washington.

For my money, the most useful thing about the current debate is that Democrats have finally learned how to talk about marginal tax rates, and no longer buy into the claim that their position denies tax cuts to the wealthy while giving them to the non-wealthy. But again, anyone accepting the GOP argument that the failure to maintain all of the 2001 the tax cuts until the end of time represents a tax increase isn’t going to accept the logic at all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.