Despite standing up in the media and proclaiming their outrage over the possibility of compromising with Republicans on the issue of extending the Bush tax cuts, the Senate Democrats again demonstrated their ineptitude by not being able to get the support of the entire caucus for limiting the tax cuts to total income of $250,000 or less. The all talk no unity Democrats have now forced the same compromise that they claim to hate.
It is not a surprise that the Senate was not able to get the required 60 votes to pass the legislation that would limit the tax cut the first $250,000 in earnings, but if Senate Democrats are so outraged at the prospect of extending tax cuts to the wealthy, they could have at least strengthened the President’s negotiating hand by presenting a united front. On each of the two test votes, they were only able to muster 53 Democratic votes.
On the $250,000 measure, four Democrats jumped ship, Russ Feingold, Joe Manchin, Ben Nelson, and Jim Webb. Here’s the bad news. Three of those four Democrats will be a part of the smaller Democratic Senate caucus in January. On the proposal to limit the tax cut to the first million dollars of income Feingold, was joined by Tom Harkin, Dick Durbin, and Jay Rockefeller as Democratic no votes. Feingold voted against both bills because he believes that the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire, and Harkin, Durbin, and Rockefeller oppose a tax cut for millionaires.
The real problem for Obama and the Democratic Party in general was on full display on the first vote. Obama expressed his disappointment that the Senate couldn’t get it passed, “I am very disappointed that the Senate did not pass legislation that had already passed the House of Representatives to make middle class tax cuts permanent.” Obama also said that the he wanted to get this issue resolved before the tax cuts expire on January 1.
Obama might have been disappointed, but he should not have been surprised. On issue after issue, Senate Democrats, in their quest to govern based on their own self-interest have hung Obama out to dry. The most infamous episode in the last two years was the Senate Democrats cowardly floundering on healthcare reform, but on every issue from climate change to DADT, Harry Reid and the Senate Democratic caucus have done a better job of halting the Obama agenda than Republicans could have ever dreamed of.
Many want to blame this failing on Obama, but it isn’t the 1960s anymore. Obama can’t LBJ strong arm legislation through the Senate. Any president can set the agenda, but as George W. Bush showed when his own party’s caucuses started ignoring him, there isn’t a whole lot a modern president can do. Unlike the old days, a congressional career does not completely depend on the party or the president. This result is that while the executive branch has been strengthened in some areas, like national security, it isn’t as dominate over the legislative process as it once was.
If Senate Democrats were truly outraged over Obama compromising on tax cuts, Saturday’s vote presented them with the perfect opportunity to present a united front, and send a message to the White House that compromise is not an option. If all Democrats could unify around a single position on the tax cuts, it would strengthen the President’s hand as he attempts to deal with the Republican’s attempt to extort tax cuts for the top 2%, but as usual Democrats have proven themselves more capable of infighting than working together.
Obama and many Democrats seem convinced that the nation will crumble if these tax cuts are allowed to expire, even though this is far from the truth. Most Democrats in Congress and the White House originally didn’t want to compromise, but they have bought into the Republican frame that these tax cuts are necessary. The bigger question is why are the Democrats and the White House wasting their time fighting with each other over tax cuts when two million people are set to lose their unemployment benefits by Christmas? It is imperative that Democrats find a common message, unify around it, and get to work on the issues that impact the daily lives of the American people.