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Still furious over the compromise that President Obama struck with Senate Republicans on the expiring Bush tax cuts, House Democrats voted Thursday not to take up the negotiated package and instead work to find a measure that they could support.
Although it was a nonbinding voice vote cast in a closed Democratic caucus meeting, it was nonetheless designed to send a message to the president that House Democrats remain unhappy with the concessions he made in his efforts to avoid the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts at the end of the year.
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"Democrats think the White House mismanaged this thing and gave away too much," said a senior Democratic aide familiar with the vote.
The caucus met Thursday morning away from the House floor to discuss its options in the face of a package that many Democrats are still against. Although many had hoped to modify the proposal before a House vote, Vice President Biden met with Democrats Wednesday to tell them that the deal that had been struck with Republican leaders would not be changed.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she and her caucus are still working to modify the deal and indicated that no vote has been scheduled. "We will continue discussions with the President and our Democratic and Republican colleagues in the days ahead to improve the proposal before it comes to the House floor for a vote," she said after the caucus meeting.
Across the Capitol, the Senate planned to begin debating the tax issue Thursday afternoon and could schedule votes as early as Saturday.
The tentative agreement that Obama announced Monday night would extend for two years the Bush tax cuts for all earners, while also continuing current tax rates on dividends and capital gains. In addition, the estate tax, which expired in 2009, would be temporarily set at 35 percent with a $5 million exemption, and extended unemployment benefits would continue for 13 months. Obama also said negotiators agreed to a one-year, 2-percentage point cut in the payroll tax for all workers.
Of all of the details in the package, the most galling to liberals seemed to be the compromise to extend the tax cuts for the highest earners, which many Democrats fought when the tax relief passed Congress in 2001 and 2003. They have railed against those reductions ever since. Democrats had also wanted to make permanent the tax cuts for middle- and lower-income workers. That was not included in the deal.
After the vote, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) spoke to reporters and explained the thinking. "This message today is very simple: That in the form that it was negotiated, it is not acceptable to the House Democratic caucus. It's as simple as that," he said.
In another sign of unrest Thursday morning, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) announced that he had secured 53 signatures on a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her not to bring the compromise up for a vote.
In the letter sent to Speaker Pelosi, Welch and his colleagues called the proposal "fiscally irresponsible" and "grossly unfair."
"America is wading into fiscal quicksand. Borrowing nearly a trillion dollars to finance tax cuts that disproportionately favor millionaires and billionaires threatens our ability to create jobs, grow the middle class and protect seniors," Welch said. "Digging the country deeper into debt to pay for misguided tax policy is irresponsible and simply doesn't make sense."