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Senate Democrats Have a New Political Pinata: Mitt Romney

You might not have heard President Obama utter the name of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, but Senate Democratic leaders, announcing their intention to put pieces of Obama's "income inequality" agenda up for a vote soon, gleefully hammered away at the former Massachusetts governor a day later, turning the presumptive frontrunner into a veritable political piñata as they jabbed at his multi-millionaire status, an example, they said, of why the embattled middle class needs the federal government's help now.

As Democrats announced their intention to break Obama's plan into pieces and hold votes on the Senate floor this session, with a particular focus on raising taxes on the wealthy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took the first shot at Romney.

"The Republican presidential frontrunner is a perfect example of what's wrong with the tax code," the Nevada Democrat chastised. "An individual who makes, in a two-year period, $43 million and pays a tax rate of less than 15 percent suggests that maybe things could be changed a little."

The Senate's number two Dem, Dick Durbin of Illinois, struck a more stinging blow.

"If we have reached a point in America where it's considered normal and expected that an American business leader opens a Swiss banking account or invests in notorious tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, if that's become normal, then I think we need to have a new normal," Durbin said.

Romney, the former head of corporate buyout firm Bain Capital, who released his tax returns publicly Tuesday, showed a portion of his retirement account as being registered in the Cayman Islands, sheltered from U.S. taxes. The campaign defended the move, saying in a statement, that the retirement fund "uses investment structures just as those commonly used by charities and pension funds, including union pension funds, to maintain their tax exempt or tax deferred status."

But Durbin made it clear, Democrats intend to push President Obama's proposal that would double the effective tax rate paid by millionaires, like Romney and quite a few members of Congress. This is the so-called "Buffet Rule", named for billionaire investor Warren Buffet who famously said he paid less in taxes than his secretary, who showed up with First Lady Michelle Obama Tuesday night for the president's speech.

"The notion that high-fliers can earn over $20 million a year and pay less than 15 percent when it comes to their tax rate, and we're not supposed to raise that as a matter of policy?" Durbin asked. "Of course we should. It's our job to do it."

Not to be outdone by Reid or Durbin, Chuck Schumer attempted a bit of sarcasm. "It's a priority for us to act on some kind of Romney, I mean, Buffet rule," the New York Dem chided.

As early as March, Schumer said Democrats would start to bring pieces of the Obama plan to the floor, much as they did last year, in a move designed more for political gain by showcasing GOP objections, than for substantive, bipartisan victory.

But Republicans have said the bigger problem is the nation's sky-rocketing debt which threatens a crisis on the level now enveloping parts of the European Union, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, charged that Obama is merely running away from his red-ink record.

"The issue is not what he's challenging Congress to do going forward but what he's already done," the Kentucky Republican told Fox's Bret Baier Tuesday. "We're living in the Obama economy. It includes downgrading of our credit rating, a debt now the size of our economy which makes us look a lot like Greece, and almost $1 trillion stimulus bill, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, an explosion of government in every direction. And the American in November tend to look at that and decided to issue a national restraining order to stop that."

Still some took issue with rhetoric they said was "dangerous."  Conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called the "income inequality" argument, now the cornerstone of the Democratic agenday for 2012, "acerbic" and "un-American." 

The contrast was unusually stark Tuesday into Wednesday between Republicans and Democrats, with Schumer assessing the economy this way: "We think we're in great shape. We're in good shape." But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who offered the GOP response to Obama's speech, said, "When President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true."

One thing is also clear, as Democrats push votes in the Senate that Republicans are likely to oppose, and President Obama continues his attacks against the GOP as defenders of Wall Street and the wealthy, the chasm is likely to grow ever wider.