Budget tax increases would put red-state Democrats in tough spot in 2014

Congressional Republicans will try to use a Senate Democratic budget that would raise tax revenues as a weapon against vulnerable incumbents seeking reelection in 2014. 

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced over the weekend that the Senate would vote on a budget for the first time in four years and suggested Democrats would use the budget process to accelerate the passage of tax reform.

Republicans wasted no time in casting those efforts as just the Democrats’ latest tax-raising enterprise, and could find an effective cudgel against a half-dozen Senate Democrats — including the chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) — seeking reelection in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. 

“I don’t think anyone’s shocked that Democrats simply see it as another way to try and raise taxes on the American people and small businesses,” Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Monday. 

GOP lawmakers said Monday that they would insist that a budget get a full debate in committee and on the floor, and would push for the ability to offer amendments that could embarrass Democrats. Republicans have also ruled out the fresh round of revenue increases that Democrats are demanding, arguing the recent “fiscal cliff” deal resolved that side of the fiscal equation. 

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the Budget Committee chairwoman, declined to answer questions about the next steps for Democrats.

The Senate last passed a budget in April 2009, a four-year gap that Republicans have repeatedly criticized as a dereliction of duty. The GOP-controlled House plans to vote this week on a short-term debt-ceiling increase that is conditioned on the Senate clearing a budget. If a budget were not passed, lawmakers would have their pay withheld. 

The willingness of Senate Democrats to pass a budget seems to indicate that party leaders believe higher taxes on the wealthy has become a winning issue that will help them retain their majority.

Democratic leaders have to corral a caucus that includes fiscal hawks and liberals who fiercely defend entitlement programs, and have long faced accusations from Republicans that they are the party of higher taxes and spending. 

But Schumer, who has argued for months that Democrats have erased the Republican advantage on taxes, sounded defiant when discussing revenues over the weekend. 

“We’re going to do a budget this year, and it’s going to have revenues in it, and our Republican colleagues better get used to that fact,” Schumer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

President Obama has repeatedly said that even many voters who didn’t back him in November believe that the highest earners should contribute more in taxes. 

Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said the shift in public opinion would shield red-state Democrats who are on the ballot in 2014, and argued that the completion of a broad fiscal agreement that included a tax overhaul would be an achievement to sell to voters back home.

In addition to Baucus, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) are seeking reelection in 2014 in states that went red in last year’s presidential election. 

A seventh Senate Democrat, Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), is retiring instead of running for another term in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Romney.

“We’ve gone from pretty afraid of it to embracing the debate wholeheartedly,” Manley, now at QGA Public Affairs, told The Hill about taxes. “Democrats are the ones offering real proposals to deal with the deficit.”

But Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), recently tapped to join the Budget Committee, said he thinks centrist Democrats like Begich and Landrieu would be skittish about voting for a budget with a big tax increase. 

“I’ll tell you, the budget resolution in the House of Representatives was tough,” Wicker said. “We borrow 40 cents of every dollar we spend, and doing something about that is bound to touch on some issues that are sacred cows.”

Senate Democrats have so far been tight-lipped about how they plan to proceed on a budget, including how specific the tax portions will be and the Finance Committee’s role in crafting them. 

The upper chamber returns to Washington this week, and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, said the caucus would discuss the issue at a Tuesday meeting.

“Today is a day for celebration, not for news,” King said Monday. 

But Schumer said on Sunday that Democrats would use the budget to “lift” tax reform, a reference to the budget reconciliation process that would allow a rewrite of the tax code to proceed without a filibuster. 

If both the House and Senate pass budgets, a resolution reconciling them, which faces only a simple majority threshold in the Senate, can be used to enact sweeping deficit-cutting legislation. 

Republicans predict Murray might not move a budget through committee and are unsure whether the Democratic plan will simply call for new revenue through tax reform without specifying which tax breaks should be scrapped. 

Democrats have long targeted preferences for the oil-and-gas industry and other sectors, but some of the more expensive tax incentives, like the deduction for home mortgage interest, are also quite popular. 

After April 15, any senator could offer a budget for floor consideration under Senate rules, giving Democratic leaders a path around the Budget Committee, if need be.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the top Republican on the Budget panel, said Monday that he would push for an open amendment process for the budget, the sort of “vote-a-rama” that can force tough votes and which Democrats say have poisoned the budget process. 

“I hope it’s serious. It can’t just be ‘throw up a budget and vote on it,’ ” he said. “The statute requires the committee process be done.”

But Sessions did say that the combination of reconciliation and presidential leadership could get a broad tax revamp enacted. 

“If you do this thing right, then the conference committee actually becomes the way to reach a bipartisan agreement,” he said.