Democrats hit Mitt with a tax bill

Congressional Democrats took aim at Mitt Romney on Wednesday by calling for legislation to require presidential candidates to disclose a decade of their tax returns and the value and location of accounts in tax-haven countries. 

The transparent effort to pressure Romney came from Democrats in the House and Senate, suggesting Congress’s attention, more than ever, is on the 2012 fight for the White House.

The call for 10 years of tax returns came from Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. He said he would introduce legislation soon.

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“For decades, it’s been on a voluntary basis, and most have come through. But not everybody,” Levin told reporters on a conference call. “The law should now enforce what is so obviously good and transparent.”

Levin’s effort would also require candidates to disclose further information about offshore accounts and their investment income. 

At the same time, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) took to the Senate floor to press legislation, first introduced in March, that would require federal candidates to disclose the value and location of financial investments in tax-haven countries.

Durbin and Levin, who has long taken an interest in offshore tax avoidance, said their push wasn’t related to the presidential campaign. But Durbin has noted before that he believes Romney is the only presidential candidate to have a Swiss bank account, which he says raises questions about the likely Republican nominee. 

“It may be a thinly veiled legal way to avoid taxation,” Durbin later told The Hill about his bill. “But it certainly raises questions about why they’re avoiding taxation, and the impact it has on the country.” 

The Democratic efforts come as President Obama’s campaign has blasted Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and executive of a private-equity firm, for not being transparent enough about his tax records.  

Democrats also have raised questions about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, after the Boston Globe reported that Securities and Exchange Commission filings identified Romney as the firm’s chief executive three years after he said he had left.

The Democratic drumbeat on Romney’s taxes, as well as his use of investments in other locales such as the Cayman Islands, have put the likely Republican nominee on the defensive in recent weeks. 

Romney has released his 2010 tax records, which showed he paid just under a 14 percent rate on more than $20 million in income, and has said he will release his 2011 returns. But he suggested in an interview with the conservative National Review that this is as far as he will go. 

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) came to Romney’s defense Wednesday. 

At a news conference, Boehner called the issue a “sideshow” and said voters are “not asking where in the hell the tax returns are.”

“Whether it’s the tax returns, whether it’s Bain Capital, you’ll see every distraction known to man, because the president can’t run on his record,” Boehner added.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has twice run for president himself, told The Hill that Democrats needed to spend more time on jobs and the deficit than what he called “political shenanigans.”

Alexander said he had released some of his tax records when he ran for office, but said that was a candidate’s personal choice and that voters already know plenty about Romney.

 “To say this is not political shenanigans is a political shenanigan in and of itself,” the Tennessee Republican said of the new Democratic efforts. 

Democrats, however, believe the attacks are effective. 

Their confidence has been bolstered by Republicans on Capitol Hill and prominent conservatives who have urged Romney to release more returns, saying that would provide more publicity for his message that the economic recovery has stagnated under Obama.

Rep. Sandy Levin said Wednesday that his measure was only meant to give voters a clearer picture of a candidate’s finances, and that the sort of issues he raised could help voters judge a candidate’s qualifications on issues like tax reform.

The Michigan Democrat, who said he was starting to reach out to fellow Democrats on his bill, said the measure would require candidates to disclose the amount of offshore accounts or investments that weren’t in publicly traded companies. 

It would also force candidates to distinguish between income that came from their own investments and income that came from managing the assets of others; to detail their financial arrangements with outside companies; and to release more information about 401(k)s or IRAs.

The measure is not expected to have much success in the GOP-led House, but Durbin told The Hill that he didn’t think a 10-year requirement was “unreasonable.”

The Senate majority whip also dismissed Boehner’s claim that the current Democratic proposals were a sideshow.

Those comments came as Democrats were talking up a Senate proposal aimed at impeding outsourcing that is expected to get a Thursday procedural vote, and after Durbin also noted that a Bain-owned company had decided to outsource 150 full-time jobs from Illinois to China.

“When companies like Bain Capital continue to outsource American jobs, it makes our economy even weaker,” Durbin said. “That’s a reality.” 

— Russell Berman and Ramsey Cox contributed to this report.