Remember when I said that Congress would be forced to work together in order to get anything done? I may have assumed too much about Congress’s desire to conduct business. On December 1st, all forty-two Republicans in the Senate signed a letter to Democrat Senator and Majority Leader Harry Reid stating that they would block all legislation until the Bush tax cuts were extended past their current December 31st expiration date.
CNN reported that Republicans are pushing for the tax cuts to be extended as is, while Democrats want to keep the tax cuts for households making $250,000 or less, while allowing them to lapse for those who make more than $250,000. Republicans in the Senate contend that the tax increase to those in the upper tax brackets would be “job-killing”, while Senate Democrats say that returning taxes to Clinton levels for the richest Americans would be revenue building.
On the surface, this showdown is barely newsworthy. The disagreement over whether to levy taxes and increase government spending or lower taxes and decrease spending and regulation is as old as America’s two party system. Senators blocking legislation is hardly a new tactic, although this unified and stated refusal to handle government business until a seemingly unreachable compromise is attained may be a new frontier in no-compromise politics. The real news, though, is what will be swept under the rug while Senate Republicans make their show of force.
With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a national unemployment rate falling just below ten percent (and at almost fifteen percent in a handful of states), Republican lawmakers blocked an extension of unemployment benefits. The bill would have extended benefits for those who have already used the 26 weeks currently provided by states to a possible 99 weeks. The failure to pass this extension will leave thousands without benefits in many states, especially the industrial Midwest and the South. While it is no secret that Conservative lawmakers are hardly fans of so-called government handouts, it is worth noting that of the fourteen states with above average unemployment in October, nine had at least one Republican senator. By refusing to allow passage of unemployment benefits as the holiday season and winter weather approach, those senators are ignoring the needs of their constituents in favor of political posturing.
Other legislation that will fall by the wayside: the oft discussed repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the young of illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, the House, in an act of futility, passed Obama’s plan of tax cuts to all but the top 2% of earners – which the Senate rejected Saturday morning, according to the New York Times.
As Republicans have ridden the wave of their victory in the midterm elections to wield political power in the Lame Duck Congress typically reserved for the side that is actually in power, Democrats have stood on the sidelines and allowed the agenda to be hijacked. True, Democrats do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the senate. But while Republicans have presented a strong, united front, Democrats have floundered. It now seems likely that President Obama will have to give up his version of the Bush tax cuts, which was one of his favorite promises to make during the campaign. Meanwhile, Republicans are already keeping their campaign promise to refuse compromise on spending and tax cuts and strong-arm their agenda through the Senate, and the new session hasn’t even begun. If this is what we can expect for the next two years, President Obama is either going to have to learn to be a more forceful leader or kiss his agenda goodbye.