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Senate Democrats Line Up Message Votes on Tax Fairness

I don’t know if anything’s going to get done in Congress in 2012, but one thing is becoming clear – Senate Democrats will try to put Republicans up against the wall on taxes. They already have on the record multiple instances of Republicans voting almost in unison against millionaire’s surtaxes. Now we’ll see votes on fossil fuel subsidies and that alternative minimum corporate tax the President mentioned in the State of the Union and other tax fairness issues:

Democratic leaders are embracing a new strategy for tax reform that leans on President Obama’s State of the Union call for tax fairness and economic equality […]

“We intend to pursue a different kind of tax reform that borrows from the president’s proposals,” Schumer, a leader in crafting Democratic messaging, told reporters.

Such a strategy would seem to have little chance of winning Republican support, making it seem more like election-year politics than a way to actually pass a bill.

I don’t think there’s any question about that. But it’s also a prelude to trying to extract concessions down the road. Witness, for example, Sheldon Whitehouse’s Buffett rule bill:

Picture this scenario. The Senate holds a high-profile vote on a proposal focused directly on implementing the Buffett Rule, one that would bring the current tax rate for millionaires paying lower rates on investments up to 30 percent. This, at at exactly the moment when the GOP is picking a nominee who is worth $250 million and is personally benefitting to an enormous degree from the current rate — one that’s lower than many middle class taxpayers pay.

It could happen. I’m told that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is set to announce a proposal to do just this. The Senate Dem leadership is not commenting on this idea, but Dem leaders are looking for ways to hold votes on the agenda Obama laid out in his State of the Union speech. This would accomplish that perfectly.

Harry Reid has spoken positively about the general idea of a vote on the Buffett Rule, so it seems likely that Whitehouse’s idea will get serious consideration.

Whitehouse will call it the “Paying a Fair Share Act,” and it will set up a minimum tax for millionaires at 30% on their adjusted income after deductions.

Polling shows a good deal of popularity for this idea. I personally would probably rather just move up the capital gains tax, which is the source of most of the lower tax rate among millionaires, and be done with it. But there is a political advantage to bills like these for obvious reasons. Before the end of the year Republicans will be successfully painted as the protectors of the rich and connected, more willing to raise taxes on the poor than on millionaires. And in all likelihood they’ll have a Presidential nominee who is the living embodiment of that type of rich, connected person using the tax system to their advantage.

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David Dayen

David Dayen