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Votes on Tax Extenders: Later Rather Than Sooner?

While reports abounded last week that the House and Senate were finally going to move a series of all-important “middle-class” tax cuts this week, it now appears that House Republicans looked at the election calendar over the weekend and figured that it might be a bit more advantageous, politically speaking, to hold a vote closer to Nov. 2.

Despite the pronouncement on the House floor last week by Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that Republicans would “very likely” have the tax extenders bill on the floor this week, one House GOP leadership aide said yesterday it was “speculative” to say the House would take up the measure this week.

“We hope to have it on the floor in the next couple of weeks,” the aide said,

adding, “It would be politically beneficial for us to do tax relief later in the year, but obviously conferences wrap up when they’re going to wrap up.”

Indeed, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is in charge of convening the joint House-Senate conference on the bill, and House Republicans acknowledge that he rarely acts with the same political motives they do.

Aides to Grassley say the chairman was trying Monday to comply with his leadership’s demands that he schedule a conference meeting this week on extending the $1,000 child tax credit, lower taxes for married couples and the expanded 10 percent income tax bracket.

But as of press time, it was unclear whether the House GOP’s lack of enthusiasm for acting on the bill would cause Grassley to delay scheduling a conference.

Besides, as the House GOP leadership noted, it could take longer than a day to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Remember, Grassley and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) are hardly bosom buddies when it comes to working out tax bills in conference. The stories of screaming or indignant walkouts by one or the other have become legendary.

Plus, the Senate could always move first on the tax-extenders conference report, though a senior Senate GOP aide says that’s unlikely.

Still, the way some House GOP leaders figure it, having the tax extenders vote closer to the election is going to have more impact on those ever-important swing voters.

“Our agenda from now until the election is going to help our [winning] margins,” said the House GOP leadership aide. “Republicans are going to get credit for having delivered on this politically beneficial issue.”

Indeed, even Senate Republicans are relishing the opportunity to hit Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) — the Democrats currently occupied with running for president and vice president — with a potential no-show vote on the tax extenders.

“The real question is: Where do Senator Edwards and Senator Kerry stand on this?” asked Robert Traynham, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference. “Will they come back and vote for this on behalf of their constituents in Massachusetts and North Carolina?”

But lest Republicans get too excited about forcing “a lot of politically vulnerable Democrats” to “change their colors on tax relief,” in the words of the House GOP leadership aide, Democrats are ready to take as much credit for extending the tax cuts as Republicans are.

“I find it curious really that Republicans feel this is some big gotcha moment for us,” said one House Democratic leadership aide. “All it does is gives all these marginal Democrats [in tough re-election races] a chance to burnish their record.”

Plus, Democrats see it as a way to highlight their preference for middle-class tax cuts over tax cuts for the wealthy.

“The middle-class tax cuts are tax cuts that Democrats have been advocating forever,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “If Republicans were trying to pass more tax cuts for billionaires, then you’d have a fight. But here, there’s no disagreement.”

So, no matter when the House and Senate vote on extending those middle-class tax cuts, it appears they’re going to pass with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Even the most deficit-minded of Republicans and Democrats are loath to be blamed for a tax increase in an election year. Indeed, all signs point to a retreat by Senate GOP moderates, who, this summer, had originally demanded that the three tax-cut extensions be offset by spending cuts or savings elsewhere.

So a five-year extension of the credits is likely to move through both chambers without having been paid for, and everyone from the White House to the lowliest of House Democrats will claim victory.

Beyond the basics on the tax-extenders legislation, Democrats are also hoping for a win on an issue they pushed last year: an accelerated expansion of the child tax credit to those who make less than $11,000 a year.

Readers may recall that Democrats pounced on Republicans in 2003 for excluding millions of lower-income families from President Bush’s $350 billion tax cut.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) led the fight last summer to reinstate her proposal to, in effect, send $400 rebate checks to poor families with children. The media furor surrounding the issue prompted the White House to get on board, but Thomas balked and added $80 billion in additional tax cuts to the bill. Most of the additional cuts were provisions the Senate had nixed as part of a deal to keep the tax-cut package to no more than $350 billion.

Besides, Thomas, along with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), noted that most of those low-income families that might benefit from the rebate didn’t pay federal taxes anyway.

As you might have guessed, the House and Senate were at loggerheads over the issue until now, with Senate Republicans lacking the votes to pass an additional $80 billion in tax cuts.

So the fight is back on as part of the tax extenders legislation.

One Democratic aide made a pre-emptive strike against Republicans, challenging them to “fix a provision that will raise taxes on 4 million low-income families, affecting 9 million children.”

But a well-placed Senate GOP aide indicated that because the chamber had voted 94-2 last year to correct what Senate Republicans said was an error, the Senate would not take kindly to any House refusals to go along with the expansion of the credit to poor people.

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