Senate Democratic candidates backing away from President Obama's tax plan

Senate Democratic candidates are wavering over whether to support President Obama’s plan to raise taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year.

At least seven Democrats in battleground states say they support or could support extending tax breaks for families who make more than $250,000.

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Obama has called on letting tax cuts for those families expire at the end of the year.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D), who is running to replace Sen. George Voinovich (R), has suggested a one-year extension of current tax rates for families earning between $250,000 and $1 million.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) have also said they are flexible about extending tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush for families earning above $250,000.

Even the stalwart liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has not ruled out an extension of tax relief for wealthier families.

This group falls between candidates in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia who have called for an extension of all of the Bush-era tax cuts and Democrats in Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington state, who are lining up behind Obama’s tax plan.

“Lee Fisher supports making permanent tax cuts for the middle class,” said Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for Fisher’s campaign. “The tax cuts for those making more than a million dollars should expire. We should extend the tax cuts for a year to people making between $250,000 and a million.”

Fisher’s position strikes a middle ground between Obama and centrist Democrats who have called for a temporary extension of all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. The centrists argue that raising any taxes during a time of high unemployment could slow the national economic recovery.

Republicans argue that raising the tax rates on families earning more than $250,000 will impact many small businesses.

House Democrats from districts with high standards of living compared to the national average have also balked at raising taxes on wealthier families. Some of these lawmakers argue that $250,000 amounts to a middle-class income in some areas.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from Manhattan, has proposed legislation that would provide adjustments in income tax rates to reflect regional costs of living.

The legislation is sponsored by five Democrats representing New York City, its suburbs and Long Island, where living standards and incomes are high.

Bennet, who is facing a tough race in Colorado, is open to a compromise on a short-term extension.

“Michael's first priority is extending the tax cuts for the middle class, who are working harder, making less, and facing higher costs,” said Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi. “He's opposed to any long-term extension on tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 because it will further increase the deficit, but he will consider a short-term compromise in order to preserve middle class tax relief.”

Marshall, the candidate liberals favored in North Carolina’s Democratic primary, has also expressed possible support for extending tax relief for families earning above Obama’s threshold. “She wants to extend the tax cuts for lower- and middle-income families but thinks the rich should pay their share,” said Marshall spokesman Sam Swartz. “It may be appropriate to draw the line a little higher. She thinks it’s appropriate the tax cuts for the wealthy expire.”

Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, who is running for Senate in West Virginia, has joined other centrist Democrats in calling for an extension of Bush’s tax cuts.

“The governor believes that no taxes should be raised during this time of recovery,” said Sara Payne Scarbro, a spokeswoman for Manchin’s campaign. “He also believes that we should focus on getting our finances in order, cutting wasteful spending and running government as effectively and efficiently as possible before we even look at changing taxes.”

Manchin says his state was able to reduce taxes for families and businesses after paying down its debt.

Manchin joins Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D), who is running for Senate in Indiana, Robin Carnahan, who is vying to replace Sen. Kit Bond (R) in Missouri, and Jack Conway, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky.

Carnahan has said now is not the time to raise taxes.

Conway’s campaign has said he also favors an extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts, even going so far as to remind reporters that he supported them when they passed in 2001 and 2003.

Ellsworth is one of 31 House Democrats who signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week urging her to renew Bush’s tax policies.

Even some liberal Democrats aren’t willing to rule out an extension of tax rates for some of the nation’s wealthiest families.

Boxer says she supports extending tax cuts for families for “at least 98 percent [of] Americans,” according to her spokesman.

That statement opens the door to extending the cuts for families who earn more. An aide to the Boxer campaign said the senator would review proposals for extending tax relief for families above that threshold.

Democratic Senate candidates who are more comfortably ahead in the polls, or have little prospect of actually winning, are more comfortable with Obama’s tax plan.

Aides to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) and Delaware county executive Chris Coons (D) say those candidates support Obama’s proposal to extend middle-class tax cuts and raise rates on families earning over $250,000.

Rep. Paul Hodes (D), who is running in New Hampshire, Scott McAdams, the Democratic candidate in Alaska, and Tracy Potter, who is bidding to succeed Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) in North Dakota, also support Obama’s plan.

“I think it's necessary and appropriate to extend tax cuts for everyone of middle income,” Potter said in an interview. “I support the president’s position that tax cuts for those making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year do expire.”

Several Democratic candidates have been unwilling to say that just as plainly.