Reid move on 'Plan B' shielded centrists from a tough vote

Senate Democratic leaders ruled out a vote on Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) "Plan B" tax bill as the political blame game shifted into high gear on Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he wanted to push Boehner back to the negotiating table with President Obama, but his decision effectively shielded vulnerable Democrats up for reelection.

Reid said that “until Republicans take up our bill in the House, the one that’s passed here, there’s nothing to discuss.” He was referring to the legislation that passed the Senate earlier this year that would extend tax cuts for families making $250,000 or less per year.

“We are not taking up any of the things that they’re working on over there now,” he said. “It’s very, very, very unfortunate the Republicans have wasted an entire week on a number of pointless political stunts.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, said the political dynamic has changed since 2010.  “You can’t turn the clock back two years; the politics are different. The president wanted 250, campaigned on 250 and won on 250,” Schumer said in favor of using the lower threshold of $250,000 to extend tax rates.

Short of votes, House Republicans pulled Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” tax bill from the floor late Thursday. 

Fifty-two Democrats and a liberal Independent voted two years ago for a proposal to extend Bush-era tax rates for family income below $1 million, the central component of Boehner’s plan.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who won reelection in Florida, campaigned on that threshold.

“Sen. Nelson supports permanently extending the Bush-era tax cuts that are due to expire at the end of this year for everybody making less than $1 million a year,” his spokesman said this summer.

In addition, a handful of centrist Democrats facing reelection, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), want to keep the inheritance tax from rising significantly. Boehner’s plan would have kept it at the current 35 percent rate.

Earlier Thursday, Baucus declined to say whether he would vote for Plan B if it reached the Senate floor: “That’s a hypothetical. Moot.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who represents a state Mitt Romney won handily, said he needed to review the bill more closely.

“They’re breaking it down for us now,” he said.

Other Democrats who could face tough reelections in 2014, such as Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), said they would have voted no.

A vote against extending tax rates for income below $1 million could have posed problems for the handful of Democratic senators running for reelection in red states.

“That’s surely one reason why Harry Reid will keep the issue off the floor,” said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in congressional studies. “The easiest thing for him to do is say this is going nowhere in the Senate so there’s no point to bring it up. He’ll do what he can to spare some of his colleagues a vote that might be used against them in the future.”

Reid and other Democratic leaders argued Thursday it would be senseless to bring "Plan B" to the floor because it had no chance of passing and they needed to spend limited time before year’s end on passing the defense and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reauthorizations.

Republicans, including Boehner, said Reid could have amended "Plan B" with a new Democratic proposal to address the tax rates set to expire on Dec. 31.

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), said Reid was trying to buy time.

“He doesn’t have an agreement yet on his amendment,” said Stewart, who argued Reid could not use the Senate bill that passed in July, which extended tax rates for family income below $250,000, because it allows the estate tax to lapse to 55 percent, which would be unacceptable to many Democrats.

Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman, said Democrats never considered amending Boehner’s fallback measure.

“Boehner’s pitch is based on the idea that them acting forces us to act. They’re doing their utmost to convince their own members that is the case. It’s just not going to see the light of day,” he said of the proposal.

Democrats said "Plan B" was unacceptable for many reasons, claiming it would have raised taxes on working families by not extending the college tuition tax credit, the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.

“That’s not a plan. We need something that will move this country in the right direction,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D), who won reelection last month by a narrow margin in Republican-leaning Montana.

Democratic leaders said Thursday the fiscal cliff must be addressed by negotiations between Obama and Boehner. No solution would come from “ping-ponging” legislation between the Senate and House.

The general perception that Boehner’s proposal was more of a negotiating tactic than a serious plan to avoid the fiscal cliff had emboldened vulnerable Democrats to support Reid’s plan to bottle it up.

“They have plenty of reasons to oppose the Republican plan,” Smith said of red-state Democrats. “They’re holding out for a larger long-term package, and the Republican approach is so limited that it cannot be taken seriously. Republicans are not touching the debt-limit increase, and that’s a pretty serious deficiency.”

Sen. Mark Begich (D), who is running for reelection in Alaska, dismissed it as a charade. He said the House Republican bill would not fully stop the expansion of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Asked if he could vote for it if it came up for a vote, he answered promptly, “It’s not coming to the floor.”

If it did, most Senate Republicans would have rallied behind it. But some Republicans declined to reveal their stances until after the House acted.

“I’m not going to think about it until it gets out of the House,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) before Plan B was pulled. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) also said they would wait for House action before making a decision.

But McConnell on Tuesday said he would likely have voted for Boehner’s plan. “I can’t imagine that I would not be supportive of a proposal that had permanent tax reductions for a substantial portion of the American taxpaying public,” he said.