For House Democrats, fight over tax cuts is now about saving face

House Democratic efforts to block President Obama’s tax bill have dwindled into a battle to save face as they come to the realization they will have little opportunity to rework the bipartisan compromise.

Party leaders were debating on Tuesday whether to bring up amendments to the bill for a vote even as Democrats acknowledged the overwhelming Senate support for the tax deal created an “urgency” to get legislation to the president’s desk.

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“The vote in the Senate indicates an urgency that is felt by a broad spectrum that middle-income taxes not be increased come Jan. 1,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters at his weekly press briefing. “In order to effect that, you’ve got to pass a bill.”

The House Democratic Caucus approved a non-binding resolution last week to reject the Obama-GOP compromise “in its current form.” But in the days since, with little support from the White House and none from Republicans for changing the framework, House leaders have backed off suggestions they would block the tax bill from coming to a vote. And one liberal critic of the plan said Democrats were resigned to the fact the deal would go forward largely intact.

“The die is cast now,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who last week circulated a letter signed by 54 Democrats urging opposition to the bill. “Once the president entered into that agreement with the Senate Republicans even while talks with the House were supposedly under way, that set the tone for the weekend, and now you got Americans excited about a trillion dollars that is going to be, in effect, given away.”

Welch said a debate over changing the legislation is now “academic.” “The bottom line is that it is a fast-moving train, and that has become clear, and Washington is doing what it is finding easy to do,” he said.

Hoyer acknowledged that the 83 votes the deal won in an initial Senate test vote gave the legislation added momentum. “Obviously there is strong support for moving ahead,” Hoyer said. “Rarely do you see that big a number.”

Agreeing to the Senate-passed legislation, however, would be a bitter pill for House Democrats to swallow after their unified action last week. It would likely be seen as a final capitulation for a chamber that has been forced to defer to the Senate repeatedly during the 111th Congress, most notably when it passed the upper chamber’s version of the healthcare law in March.

Hoyer pointed out in his briefing that the bill has already been changed from its original version, noting the addition of green energy tax credits that he said were “received positively” by the caucus.

Welch and other Democratic critics are now pushing to hold separate votes on the components of the agreement so they can register their opposition to extending tax cuts for the wealthy and to setting the estate tax at a rate favored by Republicans.

The Democratic Caucus met Tuesday evening to discuss procedures for the tax bill. One option, aides said, was to vote on an amendment that would set the estate tax at 45 percent for individuals worth more than $3.5 million, the level approved by the House last year. (The Senate ignored the House-passed bill.) The Obama-GOP deal renews the inheritance tax at 35 percent with exemptions beginning at $5 million. Democrats have assailed that provision as a giveaway, and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), chairman of the caucus, said Tuesday it was “rubbing salt into the wounds” of House Democrats.

Yet it is unclear whether an amendment to the estate-tax provision could pass the House. Republicans are likely to oppose any change en bloc, and they could be joined by enough Blue Dog Democrats to reject a higher estate tax.

“I haven’t counted votes,” Hoyer said.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said the agreement cannot be “reopened.”

Still, Democrats were not ruling out an effort to change the bill, even if leaders were backing off the confrontational rhetoric emanating from the caucus last week.

“Our caucus feels very strongly about making sure we have input into this agreement,” Larson said in an appearance on MSNBC. “Hopefully we’re going to get to add onto that.”


Michael M. Gleeson contributed to this article.

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