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Weekend Votes Unlikely for Senate; Tax Cuts Still Up in the Air

Updated: 10:21 p.m.

Senate Democrats seemed likely to ward off working into the weekend with a vote on food safety legislation Thursday night, but they still had no clear path forward on extending Bush-era tax cuts.

Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from a three-hour caucus meeting Thursday telling reporters that the lengthy sessions “have been informative and good for me.” But the Nevada Democrat was not prepared to roll out a plan to extend some or all of the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, which expire at the end of the year.

Colleagues agree on extending tax cuts for middle-class Americans, Reid said, but a specific legislative strategy has not been identified. Most Republicans and a handful of Democrats have argued that it would be a mistake to allow taxes to go up for upper-income earners while the economy is recovering from a deep recession.

Democratic sources indicated they don’t want to unveil a plan for the tax cuts until after Thanksgiving, in order to limit the time Republicans would have to criticize it.

However, Democrats indicated they are seriously considering voting on a bill that would extend tax cuts for those making $1 million or less. While the details of that option are unclear, it would be a significant change from President Barack Obama’s plan to only extend the tax breaks for the first $200,000 in income for individuals ($250,000 for couples). Democrats said it would allow them to accuse Republicans who oppose the idea of being shills for the rich.

Also in play is a suggestion by the White House to extend middle-class tax breaks for a longer period of time than any extension of upper-income tax cuts, sources said.

Democrats did not just talk about their tax cut plan Thursday. Given many are still licking their wounds from the midterm elections, Members instructed their leader to stay focused on economic policy.

“If there were one issue that has dominated the three days we’ve spent together, it’s the economy, and the No. 1 issue relating to the economy is jobs,” Reid said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Democrats are scheduled to meet for another caucus discussion Friday morning, when they will discuss potential changes to Senate rules, which has become a pet issue among junior Members.

Meanwhile, the Senate voted 57-27 in favor of a procedural motion on the long-stalled food safety bil, and Reid set up procedural votes on a substitute for the bill and on the underlying bill, with the first scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Nov. 29. Reid had warned earlier Thursday that the Senate could have to work into the weekend to clear the bill, but it appeared Thursday night that the Senate was done voting for the week. The Senate also voted Thursday night to pass a one-month extension of current Medicare physician payment rates. The bill now returns to the House.

Reid also told reporters that he would soon file a procedural motion to bring up the defense authorization bill, which includes language to repeal the military’s ban on openly gay service members. That language has tripped up progress on the overall bill, which in most years enjoys broad bipartisan support. More than a dozen Senators, led by Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), called for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and appealed to both Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday to schedule ample debate time on the floor.

But a host of issues remain, and none appear to be resolved after the Senate’s first week back on Capitol Hill following the historic midterm elections. Reid has promised a vote on an immigration measure that would give children who are illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they go to college or join the military. He will also have to work out an agreement with the House on either a continuing resolution or omnibus spending bill to keep the government funded.

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