Taking a major step toward staving off the largest tax increase in history, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to pass the tax-cut deal President Obama and congressional Republicans struck last week.
The House, where lawmakers are more divided over the measure, is expected to vote Thursday. But the Senate's strong 81-19 vote, combined with yet another plea from Mr. Obama, could help push the measure over the finish line with wavering Democrats.
"I am absolutely convinced that this tax-cut plan, while not perfect, will help grow our economy and create jobs in the private sector," Mr. Obama said Wednesday morning. "We worked hard to negotiate an agreement that's a win for middle-class families and a win for our economy, and we can't let it fall victim to either delay or defeat."
Later, the president told reporters he wants to see the bill passed as is, without any changes.
"I want to get it passed as soon as possible," he said.
That's left House Democratic leaders in a bind. Many of their rank-and-file members oppose the deal, arguing it is too generous to the wealthy, and they want a chance to scuttle the agreement and try to replace it with another version.
If Congress stalemates over the tax cut, Republicans said the resulting tax increases would total $3.8 trillion over 10 years.
The deal Mr. Obama and Republicans struck would extend for an additional two years the income-tax rates under the Bush-era tax cuts; would extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless; would establish an estate-tax rate of 35 percent on estates worth more than $5 million for an individual or $10 million for a couple; and would give a short-term payroll-tax cut.
Lawmakers and Mr. Obama reached the deal after a Republican-led filibuster blocked his preferred option of raising income-tax rates on higher-income earners. By contrast, Wednesday's vote was an impressive show of bipartisanship.
"Whether you agree with all the contents or not, everybody should understand this is one of the major accomplishments of any Congress," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Voting against the bill were 13 Democrats, one independent and five Republicans.
The Democrats, all from the liberal wing of the party, objected to the tax cuts for high-income taxpayers, while conservative Republicans said the new unemployment spending in the bill should have been paid for.
But the Senate voted 52-47 to block an attempt by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, to pay for the new spending through offsetting cuts elsewhere.
Mr. Coburn's amendment would have cut programs that Mr. Obama already has identified as wasteful, or that the deficit commission said should be axed.
It also would have insisted that millionaires not be allowed to collect unemployment benefits. Bloomberg News reported earlier this year that the government paid out nearly $20 million in 2008 on unemployment benefits for taxpayers whose annual incomes had topped $1 million.
The Senate also rejected two other changes: South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint's proposal to make all the tax cuts permanent, rather than the two-year extension and estate-tax rewrite included in the bill, and Vermont independent Sen. Bernard Sanders' proposal to let tax rates rise for upper-income taxpayers and to impose a higher estate tax.
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