By Russell Berman and Mike Lillis - 12/17/10 12:50 AM EST
The House will take another stab at passing President Obama’s tax proposal Thursday night after Democratic leaders agreed to change the amendment process to satisfy demands by liberal critics of the deal.
Lawmakers passed a key procedural measure setting debate on the bill, 214-201, just before 7:30 p.m., setting up final votes later in the evening and increasing the likelihood the House will send the tax compromise to the president’s desk late Thursday or early Friday morning. The procedural hurdle was cleared after liberal opponents of the bill won concessions from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and agreed not to block the tax bill from coming to the floor.
Liberal Democrats objected, saying it did not give them a clean opportunity to vote down the Senate-passed bill.
In response, Pelosi agreed to a new procedure that the House approved. Thirty-one Democrats and all the Republicans voted against the rule. After three hours of debate, the House will vote first on a stand-alone amendment to the Republican-favored estate tax provision, which Democratic leaders have opposed since it was first included in the Obama-GOP deal. If that measure passes, the next vote would be on the amended Senate bill. If the estate tax change fails, the House would vote on the original Senate legislation.
“Every member will have a fair chance for an up-or-down vote on final passage,” Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said.
Aides said it remained unlikely the House would send an altered version of the tax bill back to the Senate, where Republican leaders have vowed to oppose any changes to the deal they negotiated with Obama. If the estate tax change passes, the amended bill would likely be voted down by a combination of Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. Under that scenario, the House would return to the original Senate legislation.
The estate tax change, offered by Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), would return the inheritance levy to the 2009 level of 45 percent for individuals worth more than $3.5 million. The Senate bill sets the tax at 35 percent with an exemption beginning at $5 million.
A group of liberal Democrats had hoped to load up the
Pomeroy amendment with a wish-list of party priorities, but House leaders
decided against it.
“We made our case,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in an interview. His amendment — offered with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) — would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts only for Americans making less than $1 million, raised the estate tax, replaced the 2 percent payroll tax cut with another tax credit included in last year’s stimulus package, and added a $250 cost-of-living adjustment for seniors on Social Security. The measure, Welch said, “went to the heart of the problem with the legislation before us.”
“That amendment did reflect the broader priorities of the Democratic Caucus,” he added.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Thursday's lengthy debate on the bill will offer those members a chance to vent their frustrations with the proposal.
“There are a lot of different things that people don't like about this bill,” Hoyer said. “We're very appreciative of that. And we've gone through a whole series of amendments, but the conclusion was we're going to have three hours of debate … and we expect that members will have the opportunity to express what they don't like about the bill — or, for that matter, what they do like about it.”
Weiner, who had led the charge for a broader amendment, said he and others would not stand in the way of the bill and would vote for the rule governing debate.
“It’s up to [the leadership] what they decide to do, and we’re going to support them whatever they decide,” he told reporters as he left Pelosi’s office. Asked why he didn’t put up a more aggressive effort to keep the bill off the floor, Weiner replied: “Then we’d be the United States Senate. We don’t have a problem letting people have a vote on this.”
Earlier Thursday, Pelosi convened an extraordinary and impromptu huddle of more than a dozen House Democrats on the floor, during which Weiner could be seen making an animated pitch to the Speaker for an alternative amendment.
“My brain is going to blow up after this,” an exasperated Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said as he left the scrum.
As of 6:45 p.m. it was unclear whether Republicans would support the Democratic rule.
According to a Republican leadership aide, lawmakers have asked Rules Committee ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) if they should support the rule.
Dreier has told them "non-committed," the source said.
Other Republican lawmakers said that they have not been whipped to vote for the rule but to stay tuned during the actual vote.
The delay underscored the fraught politics of the tax compromise, which has angered and divided House Democrats. Just a week ago, the caucus voted nearly unanimously to reject the Obama proposal, but House leaders moved ahead with the bill anyway after the Senate overwhelmingly approved it on Wednesday.
Andrews said party leaders still intended to send a bill to the president — rather than an amended version back to the Senate. The protests by critics of the legislation, he said, “was principally about members being able to express themselves.” He added: “We’re very committed to getting this done.”
— Molly K. Hooper contributed reporting.
This story was updated from an earlier version.