In a political dance guided by election-year choreography, Senate Republicans moved Wednesday to call a vote on President Obama's plan to raise taxes on top earners while preserving tax cuts for the middle class -- only to be rebuffed by Obama's top Senate ally, Harry Reid.
Reid, though, was similarly thwarted by Republicans when he offered an alternative plan pledging such a vote in the future.
The head-spinning developments, which by the end of the day took on an only-in-Washington feel, allowed each side to accuse the other of blocking a plan to extend the Bush-era tax rates for the middle class.
Practically speaking, though, Congress was no closer to extending those rates for anybody, or setting a timetable for doing so.
Republicans attempted to get Democrats on the record for the president’s proposal by proposing two amendments to a bill being debated to cut taxes for small businesses.
One was on Obama's plan and the other on a Republican alternative that would include top-earners in the extended tax reductions.
The move came just two days after Obama urged Congress to vote on his proposal. Democrats plan to take up the president's proposal before Congress' August recess.
Without action by lawmakers, wide-ranging tax cuts enacted a decade ago under President George W. Bush will expire on New Year's Day. That's an outcome that economists say would be a blow to the already weak economy.
“What the American people need right now isn't a lecture on fairness but some certainty. And that's why today I'm going to call on the Senate to provide just that,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "The Senate should make itself clear which policy it supports. This is our chance to do it.
Reid, the Senate Majority leader from Nevada., blocked both votes, saying the Senate would return to them after it finishes the small business tax measure.
“We'll have votes on tax cuts this work period but first Republicans should stop filibustering a tax cut for small businesses,” Reid said on his Twitter account.
Aides said Democrats want to focus now on the small business measure, which they view as a winning issue for them, then turn to Obama's plan to extend the broader tax cuts, which they see as a draw for voters.
But sources told Fox News that Reid wanted to keep at least four vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election this fall from having to vote on the president's plan.
Other Democrats didn’t want to be forced to vote or "walk the plank" with so many of them having a different position on the income cutoff, the source also said.
"Apparently leaders in the president's own party understand that his plan to raise taxes for nearly one million job creators and small business owners is deeply flawed,” said Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt.
Obama says families earning over $250,000 a year should be excluded from the renewed tax cuts because they should contribute more to reducing the federal deficit.
Republicans say by excluding those people, the plan would in effect raise taxes on many business people and stifle job creation.
The White House voiced support for Reid's blocking action. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney called the GOP move "a gimmick."
The proposal floated by Republicans "was not the president's proposal, did not include the other middle-class tax cuts that were part of the president's proposal," Carney said.
He also said Reid promised the Senate would have a chance to vote on Obama's most recent proposal, and he would take him at his word.
The wrangling came one day after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod went to Capitol Hill to attempt to reassure and unite Democrats.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the meeting lasted "close to an hour" and that he doesn’t “believe that there will be many if any Democratic senators voting to extend the Bush tax cuts" in full.
Out of 119 million U.S. households, just 2.5 million -- or 2 percent -- reported making at least $250,000 in 2010, according to Census Bureau figures.
An estimated 940,000 taxpayers reporting business earnings will earn enough money to see their tax rates rise in 2013 unless lawmakers act, according to Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.
That is just 3.5 percent of taxpayers reporting business earnings -- a figure Democrats use to show how few businesses would pay higher tax rates under Obama's plan.
The committee also estimated that those 940,000 taxpayers will account for 53 percent of the $1.3 trillion in business earnings reported in 2013 -- a number Republicans cite to argue that the higher rates will hurt the economy and job creation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.