The House of Representatives voted 234 to 188 Thursday to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts on incomes up to $250,000. Also included in the bill were a two-year delay of the Alternative Minimum Tax, an elimination of the marriage penalty tax, and permanent increases to the child tax credit and the earned-income tax credit.
Twenty Democrats voted against the bill, and three Republican supported it.
Although the bill passed, a vocal minority of Republicans objected to an earlier vote by House Democrats to prevent GOP members from offering their own bill to make the tax cuts permanent for all Americans, including the highest earners. The House voted to block amendments to the bill 213 to 203 -- with 32 Democrats defecting from the Democratic leadership -- on a procedural move that speaker-in-waiting John Boehner derided.
"I'm tying to catch my breath so I don't refer to this maneuver that's going on today as chicken crap. But this is nonsense, right?" Boehner said. "The election was one month ago. We're 23 months from the next election and the games have already started to set up the next election."
Boehner also led the charge of House Republicans against the bill that ultimately passed, calling any legislation that does not extend all of the Bush tax cuts to everyone nothing more than a tax increase.
But a chorus of Democrats speaking from the House floor before the vote disagreed.
"The only thing certain about taxes these days is that the Republicans are going to use them to take from the poor and give to the rich again and again and again," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said on the House floor. "They are determined to take care of the rich . . . It isn't fair to the unemployed people in this country that the (rich) get their money for sure, while we dole it out to the unemployed one bite at a time."
Rep. Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from New York, stood beside a giant picture of the late Leona Helmsley cuddling her dog, Trouble, who inherited $12 million from Helmsley's estate when she died. "Under the Republican plan, if Trouble doesn't get a tax break, nobody else should," Crowley said. "Under the Republicans' plan, this country will go to the dogs. They'll protect this little dog, but they won't protect the middle class of this country."
While the liberal Democrats framed their their case as the rich versus the poor, moderates like Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) argued that the country can no longer afford to keep tax cuts for the wealthy in place. "With our annual deficits now approaching $1 trillion and our debt approaching $14 trillion, it's the right thing to do to make sure our economy is on a sustainable future," Van Hollen said.
Before the vote, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pleaded with Republicans to join Democrats, saying they all agree that tax cuts should be extended for the middle class.
"My suspicion is that almost everybody, if not everybody on the floor, wants to make sure that the first $250,000 of income of any American is not subjected to a tax increase on January 1st," Hoyer said. "The issue is whether we're going to hold hostage the first $250,000 of income of every American or whether we're going to say we resolve that."
Wrapping up the debate for the Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took issue with the fact that Republicans earlier blocked extended unemployment insurance, insisting that it not add to the deficit, but have not made the same demand of tax cuts they want to continue.
"This is so grossly unfair," Pelosi said. "I can't imagine that my colleagues on the other side don't want to give a tax cut to the middle class. Why don't they just vote for that?"
But one Republican after another said they would vote for middle-class tax cuts, only if they could also vote to extend tax cuts for higher incomes at the same time.
"Increasing taxes is a prescription for failure. It undermines the potential for economic growth," said Rep. David Drier (R-Calif.) "The fact of the matter is that any member of this House that votes in favor of the measure before us is voting for a tax increase. They are voting in favor of increasing taxes on American businesses and investors."
Drier called it "preposterous" that Democrats were arguing that voting for a larger tax cut would increase the deficit, saying upper-income tax cuts could help small business create jobs.
"If we can get people from the unemployment rolls onto the working rolls, that in itself is evidence that we are going to increase the revenue in this country," Drier said.
As the time ticked toward a vote, Republicans continued to accuse Democrats of politicizing the tax-cut issue to embarrass the GOP.
"Clearly this bill is going nowhere. Democrats are wasting time while Americans are looking for work," said Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.). "Democrats are playing games while Americans struggle to make ends meet."
But Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that wrote the bill, shot back, "This isn't about politics, Mr. Camp. This is about people."
Now that the bill has passed the House, it will face immediate -- and likely fatal -- opposition in the Senate from Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who predicted Thursday that the bill will fail in the Senate.
"This is a purely political exercise," McConnell said. "Ask any business owner in America what we could do to help them create jobs and they'll tell you it's to give them certainty about their taxes. . . Wasting time on votes to raise taxes won't create jobs."