Political Weather Patterns

Farmers sometimes fret about a late spring. After the first, hard frost this fall, people will begin talk about "Indian Summer." Mark Twain once quipped that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco.

El Nino and La Nina sometimes warp weather patterns. There are entire summers where the mercury barely kisses 90. Winters come and go with only passing flurries.

Political weather patterns go awry, too.

As a result, political "August" could come a little late this year. The calendar says it's mid-September. But political August hasn't hit yet.

Skilled Washington hands know to gird for battle in August. That's when political stories explode. And August, 2009 was one of the most dramatic Augusts in years.

Last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) famously declared that she didn't fear August. She dismissed it as "only a month." Yet that August, rank-and-file Democrats faced a fusillade of invective over the health care reform bill.

This past August was mild politically. And while voters are energized and motivated, no one witnessed the type of contretemps this past August that Democrats endured a year ago.

Political August, 2010 could come soon.

When Congress breaks for long recesses, it's standard for the majority party to punctuate the break with an important legislative achievement. In a best case scenario, the last bill out of the gate should be a signature item that defines the party.

Congress is back in session now after an uneventful August. Lawmakers leave again in early October to campaign for the midterm elections. The House is in up for grabs. The Senate could be in play. And everyone is clashing over an issue that drills directly into the hearts of both parties: tax cuts.

An oscillation of the jet stream and a Bermuda high may have delayed political August. As a result, it's going to hit in October. Right before the most-pivotal midterm elections in 16 years.

"I think people do know that Republicans stand for tax cuts for the rich," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "Republicans have made it clear: their priority is no tax cut for the middle class unless there is a tax cut for the wealthiest people in our country."

"No single policy is having greater effect on hindering job creation than the possibility of a tax increase in January," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN).

Both Pelosi and Pence are playing to the gallery. They're preying on people's preconceived notions about the other's party when it comes to taxes.

The Achilles Heel for Republicans is that some believe they only help the rich. The millstone around the Democrats' neck is that they like to raise taxes. These are caricatures, to be sure. But when it an election creeps near, lawmakers know how to crystallize the weaknesses of their opponent.

Here's why the political winds are about to usher in political August: no single issue impacts every American the way taxes do. People jump up and down over abortion or the Wall Street Reform bill. But everyone pays taxes. And in tough economic times, lawmakers know it's political suicide not to renew tax cuts imposed by the Bush Administration in 2001.

That's why Democrats want to pass the tax cuts before they depart Washington in early October. And that's why Republicans are trying to lay a trap for Democrats to show that they either abused the parliamentary process or pulled a fast one and didn't approve all tax cuts. Not to be outdone, Democrats may lay a few procedural landmines for Republicans, too.

The question is which tax cuts will Congress renew.

"We want a clean, up or down vote on extending all tax cuts," said Pence.

A "clean, up or down vote" means the tax cut bill won't be glommed on to some other piece of legislation. Pence and other Republicans specifically want the vote to apply to all tax cuts across the board. See, here's the rub: if Democrats don't accede directly to that demand, Republicans can cry foul. Even if the House approves MOST tax cuts.

Early this week, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) wrote to Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) to request "an open and fair debate when the House considers legislation to extend tax relief for all Americans."

Republicans are worried that Democrats could use a procedure that requires a two-thirds majority vote to okay all tax cuts. It's unlikely the House could cobble together the votes for that. But Democrats could argue that they gave Republicans a vote on the issue and it failed. And then Democrats could pass a narrow, targeted tax cut for the middle class.

Republicans want to approve all tax cuts, including those for upper-income earners. However, from a political standpoint, the GOP would actually rejoice if the Democrats employed this tactic. They could accuse Democrats of parliamentary chicanery and assert this is why Democrats shouldn't be running Congress.

Meantime, Democrats would love it if they could force Republicans to vote against a bill that slices taxes for the middle class.

But this gambit involves a game of chicken by House Democrats.

"The phasing-out of the middle-class tax cut will not end," declared House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

That is, unless Democrats roll the dice and try to goad the GOP into voting into a more targeted tax cut measure that leaves out top-tier earners. Republicans and even many moderate Democrats could hamstring the entire piece of legislation because it doesn't refresh ALL of the 2001 tax cuts.

The problem for Democrats is that more than 30 of their conservative and moderate members endorse the GOP position of renewing tax cuts across the board.

"Let's extend all the tax cuts for now until we see the other side of this recession," said Rep. Glenn Nye (D-VA) during an interview with FOX.

This is where the Republicans also have Democrats in a tough spot. If Pelosi and Hoyer don't go for the wide-ranging tax cuts and leave out the wealthy (who pay most taxes), Republicans can argue that Democrats allowed a huge break to expire. The sheer size of that tax break (presented as a tax hike) could dwarf the tax cuts Democrats did approve.

Either way, Democrats can present Republicans as advocates for the wealthy. And Republicans can say Democrats raised taxes.

It's up to the public to decide who wins this fight.

Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 1994. However, that year wasn't accented by a hyperbolic August. That's because the House was in session for most of the month. That delayed the political El Nino effect until October when Congress finally did go home to campaign for the midterm election.

But the final act of Congressional business in late-August, 1994 was the passage of a major crime bill.

President Clinton signed the bill into law in mid-September. And that's when political August rolled in. The critics raked Clinton and Democrats over the coals about the crime package. They lampooned its efforts to fund "Midnight Basketball" initiatives at inner-city community centers to get kids off the streets and deter crime. Second Amendment advocates howled at the Democrats for banning automatic assault weapons.

The crime bill was the ultimate, defining legislative issue Congress tackled before the 1994 midterm elections. And Democrats paid a heavy price for it.

Without question, tax cuts are the decisive issue in this midterm election.

Political August will hit in October once the tax cut battle plays out. Then political meteorologists will have a better idea about whether to forecast a Democratic warming trend or a Republican warming trend.