Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he plans to hold two tax cut votes on Democratic proposals Saturday after a bipartisan deal to have four votes in the Senate collapsed.
The two Saturday votes will be on the House-passed bill to extend tax cuts for Americans earning under $250,000 a year and another from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to raise the threshold to $1 million a year.
The debate started in earnest on Friday, with Reid firing the first shot of the day.
"The truth is simple -- holding middle-class tax cuts hostage for tax breaks for the wealthy that they don't need and we can't afford is irresponsible," Reid said.
Hours later the Senate's top Republican Mitch McConnell fired back.
"All of this finger-pointing is doing nothing to create jobs. It's a total waste of time," McConnell said. "This morning, we learned unemployment is now at 9.8 percent – even higher than last month – and Democrats are responding with a vote to slam job creators with a massive tax increase. Millions of out-of-work Americans don't want showboating or finger-pointing contests. What they would like, Mr. President, are jobs."
"Americans don't want to see meaningless theatrics in Congress," he continued. "They want us to do something about the economy – and the single biggest thing we can do is to tell small businesses across the country that they're not going to get a tax hike next month."
Meanwhile, an administration official said that the White House-Congress Gang of Six tax negotiators agreed at Thursday's meeting that they will not meet again until after the Senate votes this weekend.
Reid, D-Nev., had been working with Republicans to gain the unanimous consent of all senators to bring four votes to the floor -- the two Democratic proposals as well as two Republican ones.
The GOP votes were to be on a proposal to permanently extend the tax cuts for all Americans, including the wealthy, and a proposal to temporarily extend all the tax cuts for five years. However, a Republican senator objected, so Reid instead filed cloture tonight on the two Democratic proposals.
"We think we can show the American people what the Democratic priorities are and we are free to talk about what the Republican priorities are because they showed us today," Reid told reporters after a night of closed-door meetings on the Hill.
"We are for tax cuts for the middle class and they will do everything they can to further their number-one goal: tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires," outlined Schumer.
No sooner had the upcoming flurry of Senate votes been announced by Democrats than Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accused them of "pandering to their political base" with "pointless" votes that are "charades."
"With only 28 days until middle-class families, job creators and investors are hit with massive job-killing tax hikes, Senate Democrats are scheduling pointless tax votes that have no chance of becoming law," Hatch said. "Pandering to their political base with these votes isn't the responsible action the American people are demanding from their elected officials."
The sparring on Capitol Hill comes as the nation's unemployment rate jumped significantly to 9.8 percent, according to a report released this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With today's jobs data, there have been a net of 7.5 million jobs lost since December 2007, the first month of the great recession.
President Obama on Thursday urged members of Congress to extend benefits for the unemployed, which expired Wednesday for about 2 million Americans, and expressed hope that lawmakers will come together on tax cuts even though Republicans and Democrats continue to squabble over both issues.
House Democrats passed a bill Thursday to extend tax cuts for individuals who make $200,000 a year or less and couples who make up to $250,000. The move was more of a symbolic gesture on the part of House Democrats as it has little chance of succeeding in the current form in the Senate.
The top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the House vote "purely a political exercise."
"Right now House Democrats are getting ready to send us a bill on taxes that they know won't pass in the Senate. It's purely a political exercise," he stated.
The president acknowledged the tax cut dilemma going forward and touted the work of administration officials who are working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to come up with a solution.
The president "applauds the House for passing a permanent extension. But, because Republicans have made it clear that they won't pass a middle class extension without also extending tax cuts for the wealthy, the president has asked Director Lew and Secretary Geithner to work with Congress to find a way forward," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. "The talks are ongoing and productive, but any reports that we are near a deal in the tax cuts negotiations are inaccurate and premature."
Geithner and Lew have been in talks with six Republican and Democratic House leaders to find a middle ground on the tax cuts. When asked by reporters today if the tax negotiators are close to a deal at the start of their third meeting, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., only said, "We'll see."
Republicans continue to argue that Bush-era tax cuts should be extended for all Americans, regardless of income.
Obama expressed hope for a middle ground, even as the two parties continue to spar just days after a White House summit where the president and lawmakers expressed hopes for bipartisanship,
"I believe it will get resolved," Obama said after the meeting. "That doesn't mean there may not be some posturing over the next several days. But I'm confident in the end, people are going to recognize that it's important for families who are still struggling to have some relief and it's important for our economy to make sure that money is still out there circulating at a time when we are recovering but we're not recovering as fast as we need to."
Incoming speaker of the House John Boehner accused Democrats today of playing political games when it comes to taxes.
"[I am] trying to catch my breath so I don't refer to this maneuver going on today as a chicken crap, all right?" Boehner said at a press conference Thursday. "The last thing our economy needs right now is a job-killing tax hike, and that's what this plan of theirs would mean. I think it's pretty clear to get the economy going again and create jobs, we need to cut spending and stop all of the coming tax hikes."
Congress Spars Over Unemployment Benefits, Tax Cuts
The president also pushed lawmakers Thursday to extend unemployment benefits.
"Our hope and expectation is that unemployment insurance is something that traditionally has had bipartisan support, is something that once again will be dealt with as part of a broader package," the president said following a meeting with newly elected governors.
Obama's Council of Economic Advisors on Thursday released a state-by-state breakdown on the economic ripple effect of letting long-term benefits expire.
If Congress doesn't extend the benefits, seven million unemployed Americans could lose coverage by next November, the report stated.
The report showed "the consequences that inaction on extending unemployment benefits would have on American families," a senior administration official said earlier today. "In December alone, more than two million Americans will lose the temporary support that helps them keep food on the table and make ends meet while they fight to find a job if Congress doesn't act."
The Labor Department estimates that federal unemployment benefits have kept 3 million Americans out of poverty during this financial crisis. But if they are not extended by Dec. 11, 635,000 unemployed Americans will lose their benefits. By Christmas that number will escalate to 1.6 million and then almost 2 million by New Year's Day. By the end of January, the agency expects about 3.25 million Americans will be cut off.
Most states fund at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, but the federal government has been offering an additional 73 weeks of help.
Congressional Republicans argue that the cost is too high and that lawmakers need to review other budget cuts and extending tax cuts before discussing the benefits.
Lawmakers are walking a tight rope because while the benefits extension would add considerably to the already burgeoning U.S. budget deficit, it would help the economy in the short-term by putting more money into the system, some economists say.
"The emergency unemployment insurance program puts $5-6 billion into the economy each and every month so you tote that up over a year that's $80 billion. That's a lot of money," said Moody's economist Mark Zandi.