THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Battle over Bush tax cuts looms in Washington

Program set to expire after election season

By David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times / July 25, 2010

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WASHINGTON — An epic fight is brewing over what Congress and President Obama should do about the expiring Bush tax cuts, with such substantial economic and political consequences that it could shape the fall elections and fiscal policy for years to come.

Democratic leaders, including Obama, say they are intent on letting the tax cuts for the wealthy expire as scheduled at the end of this year. But they have pledged to continue the lower tax rates for individuals earning less than $200,000 and families earning less than $250,000 — what Democrats call the middle class.

Most Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for everyone, and some Democrats agree, saying it would be unwise to raise taxes on anyone while the economy remains weak. If no action is taken, taxes on income, dividends, capital gains, and estates would all rise.

The issue has generated little public attention this year as Congress grappled with health care, financial regulation, energy, a Supreme Court nomination, and other divisive topics. But it will move to the top of the agenda when lawmakers return to Washington in September from their summer recess, just as the midterm campaign gets underway in earnest. In recent days, intense discussions have begun at the Capitol.

Beyond the implications for family checkbooks, the tax fight will serve as a proxy for the bigger political clashes of the year, including the size of government and the best way of handling the tepid economic recovery.

“It has enormous ramifications for the fall and clearly will be one of the dominant issues,’’ said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. “This is code for the role of the federal government, the debate over the size of government and the priorities of the nation.’’

At a closed-door meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, participants said Democrats were clearly divided while Republicans wanted assurances that any bill would be developed openly, allowing them to propose amendments. In a sign of how combustible the issue could be, Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and the committee’s chairman, has so far refused to make that commitment.

Both parties are still charting strategy, but some lawmakers, congressional aides, and administration officials said Democrats must try to pass a bill before the election and not wait for a lame-duck session. “You can’t play chicken with this much of the tax system,’’ said a senior Republican Senate aide, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to comment on talks.

If no tax legislation is passed, all the major tax reductions passed under President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003 would expire, with rates reverting overnight on Dec. 31. The top marginal income tax rate, for example, would go back to 39.6 percent from 35 percent now, with corresponding increases in rates for lower income brackets.

Some liberals want Obama to keep his promise to raise taxes on the rich, and the White House’s budget forecasts rely heavily on rolling the top income tax rates back to their pre-2001 levels. Some fiscal hawks warn that extending the tax cuts would add more than $2 trillion to the federal budget deficits at a time when the national debt is becoming an economic concern and a political issue. Political economists are fiercely divided.