WASHINGTON – Democrats worked Tuesday to turn a standoff over taxes to their political advantage, arguing that Republicans are essentially raising taxes by failing to revive popular middle class breaks.
A list of widely popular tax cuts expired more than nine months ago and have not yet been renewed, even as lawmakers stand six weeks away from an election with control of Congress at stake.
Among the expired provisions are federal tax deductions for student tuition and expenses and for state and local sales taxes, intended to help residents in states that don't have an income tax. Another provision allowed educators to write off some of the money they spend on their classroom supplies.
"Well, who's raising taxes now?" said Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Many Republicans support the tax breaks, but they have joined them to a bill cutting taxes on multimillion-dollar estates. Most Democrats oppose the GOP's estate-tax reduction bill. The resulting standoff has put the expired tax cuts in limbo.
Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, has tried several times to pass the popular tax breaks separately, but Republicans have objected each time.
"These guys are so tied in an ideological knot that they can't get the most simple things done," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Democrats similarly objected when Republicans tried to revive their bill, which combines the estate tax cut with provisions reviving the popular tax breaks and increasing the federal minimum wage.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the action showed Democrats so intent on seeing the estate tax increase in future years that they are willing to kill middle class tax cuts and the minimum wage increase.
Republicans, including President Bush, have been arguing that Democrats cannot be trusted to keep taxes low. "They continue to view the taxpayer as a gold mine that exists only to feed the federal treasury and a bigger federal government," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Baucus said the GOP's inaction on the middle class tax cuts proves that accusation false. "I don't want to hear all this doomsday talk about who's going to raise taxes," he said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has said that some vulnerable Republicans may pay a political price if Congress fails to revive the tax cuts before the Nov. 7 election.
Boehner disagreed and said leaving the tax cuts unfinished will not a liability for Republicans during this fall's campaign season. "I don't think so, no," he said.