After Dem leaders skip vote, Bush tax debate flares on campaign trail

The decision by Democratic leaders to skip a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts has led to intense campaign attacks on vulnerable House and Senate Democrats.

Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are under pressure for opposing GOP amendments that would have extended tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush.

Vulnerable House Democrats such as Reps. Suzanne Kosmas of Florida and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota have also found themselves on the defensive. 

Democrats have tried to deflect the issue back at Republicans by accusing them of supporting tax breaks for “millionaires and billionaires.” Republicans have called for extending all of the Bush tax cuts, while Democratic leaders would extend the cuts only for families making less than $250,000.

“Republicans in Congress have been very, very clear where they stand — where they stand is for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, period,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Voters see the difference that Democrats want to provide 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses with tax breaks,” he said.

Pelosi wanted a pre-election vote on extending tax relief for middle-class families, but lost the scheduling debate to vulnerable and centrist Democrats who balked at the prospect of ending tax cuts for the wealthy.

But leaving town without a defining vote on one of the biggest issues of the campaign has failed to shield embattled incumbents. 

In Colorado, Republican challenger Ken Buck and the Club for Growth have hit Bennet for voting this summer against amendments sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would have extended the Bush tax cuts.

Buck has aired a television commercial accusing Bennet of voting for higher taxes 24 times in Washington. The Club for Growth and DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund have also aired ads slamming Bennet for these votes.

The Bennet campaign cites the DeMint amendments that attempted to block possible tax increases on small-business owners and freeze income taxes at current rates. 

Another DeMint amendment, offered in July, tried to extend the repeal of the estate tax. 

A fourth amendment in June would have forced the Senate Finance Committee to extend current capital gains and dividend tax rates set to expire at the end of the year. 

Regan Lachapelle, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Republicans have stretched the truth by claiming that Democratic lawmakers staked out positions on the Bush tax cuts by voting against the DeMint amendments.

Lachapelle said the amendments “were not on proposals to lower taxes,” but were instead procedural motions “that would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the Finance Committee to act on.”

Bennet is not the only Senate Democrat coming under pressure. In Washington, Republican challenger Dino Rossi and the state GOP have criticized Murray for her stance on the Bush tax cuts.

Rossi faulted Murray last week for voting to adjourn before lawmakers had a chance to consider an extension of current tax rates. The state party accused Murray of voting more than 250 times for tax increases during her three terms in Congress.

Murray has consistently voted for tax cuts for the middle class and supports extending tax cuts for those who make under $250,000, a spokeswoman said. Echoing other Democrats, she accused Rossi of holding that tax relief hostage for tax cuts for millionaires. 

Like Murray, House Democrats are getting hit for their votes to recess for the campaign trail without taking up the tax cuts. GOP candidates are highlighting a 210-209 vote to adjourn that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) attempted to turn into a referendum on the tax cuts.

Dozens of Democrats at risk of losing their seats sided with Republicans on the vote after Boehner argued in a floor speech that it would be irresponsible for Congress to leave without a vote on the tax cuts, but other Democrats supported their party and are now getting hit hard.

In Florida’s 24th district, Republican Sandy Adams issued a release that blamed Kosmas for casting the deciding vote to adjourn.

In North Dakota, Republican Rick Berg charged Pomeroy, who is trying to hold on for a 10th term, with being more loyal to Pelosi than to his own home state.

In Illinois, Republican Bobby Schilling charged Rep. Phil Hare (D) with voting to allow tax rates to rise, even though Congress is likely to act on extending the tax cuts in a lame-duck session.

Reps. Betty Sutton (Ohio), Tim Walz (Minn.) and Harry Teague (N.M.) are among the other Democrats whose opponents have ripped into them for their votes.

All are considered vulnerable in a midterm election where Republicans could win dozens of seats. 

The House Democrats who voted to adjourn have different positions on the tax rates, all of which are set to expire at the end of the year.

Pomeroy voted against the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, but now supports extending all of them given the economic climate, a campaign spokesman said in an e-mail. He voted for adjournment because the Senate had already decided not to take action on the issue, “so to keep the House in session would have been a waste of taxpayer money.”

Hare wants to extend the tax cuts only for middle-class families and urged Democratic leaders to vote before the recess, said spokesman Tim Schlittner. Schlittner said Schilling wants to “continue tax giveaways to millionaires and billionaires.”