Calling Vice President Cheney

By Ed O'Keefe

Mar 13, 2008 2:44pm

ABC News’ Z. Byron Wolf Reports: Fasten your parliamentary safety belts; this one is a doozy.

It was surprising when Vice President Dick Cheney strode into the Senate Chamber and took up his chair presiding over the chamber. He can only vote when there’s a tie vote and he’s only cast a tie-breaking vote 7 other times in his 7 years in office.

On Tuesday it was the AMT, or alternative minimum tax, that brought Cheney up Pennsylvania Avenue.

Republicans in the form of Senator Arlen Specter, R-Penn., had proposed an amendment to the annual budget bill that would roll back the AMT tax rate from its current 28 percent of income back to the 24 percent it was in 1993. This wouldn’t fix the AMT, but it would make it more bearable for those caught up in it. Democrats don’t want to accept any AMT fix that isn’t paid for with taxes added someplace else.

The stage was set for a small Republican victory.

The AMT, which has to do with the American tax system and so is already a mindbender, is the trap Congress set in 1969 for those high-income individuals that had so many tax write-offs they ended up not paying any income tax.

But Congress didn’t peg the AMT to inflation, so rather than catch rich tax evaders, it now penalizes middle class tax payers. Both Democrats and Republicans want to change the AMT, but can’t agree on how.

Republican leaders had lost a Republican, George Voinovich of Ohio but gained two Democrats, Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

In the closely divided Senate, that’s a tie vote. And apparently nobody from either party expected it.

Regardless, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex, was not present. Stuck at a meeting downtown, according to his office, Cornyn missed the vote and, rather than wait for him to get back, Democrats gaveled the vote closed, 49 for and 50 against. The motion failed.

Republicans moved to reconsider the vote and scrambled to get Cheney up to the Hill to break the tie and score their victory. Democrats parried, moving to table the Republicans’ motion to reconsider.

By this time, Cornyn had returned and Republicans moved through the two procedural votes to have a second vote on the AMT measure, with Cheney breaking the tie on whether to reconsider the vote.

Democrats, meanwhile, had a heart to heart conversation with Nelson on the Senate floor — “I don’t know what they promised that man, but it must have been something big,” said one miffed Republican staffer — and the Nebraska Democrat, who had sided with Republicans on the AMT amendment moments before, changed from a yea to a nay on the exact same amendment.

The motion failed, Vice President Cheney went on about his day.

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