Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday vowed to block income tax hikes on any American next year, daring Democrats and the White House to raise taxes on wealthier taxpayers as the economy limps along.
The latest salvo in the escalating fight over renewing Bush-era tax cuts comes as the Obama administration tries to cast itself as the defender of the middle class and portray Republicans as purveyors of the “failed” economic policies of President George W. Bush.
“I’m introducing legislation today that ensures that no one in this country will pay higher income taxes next year than they are right now,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor. “We can’t let the people who’ve been hit hardest by this recession and who need to create the jobs that will get out of it foot the bill for the Democrats’ two-year adventure in expanded government.”
Mr. McConnell, of Kentucky, made his comments a day after House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, indicated a willingness, if need be, to accept President Obama’s long-shot bid to extend the tax breaks only for individuals earning less than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000.
The comments left some members of the GOP, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, scrambling to distance themselves from Mr. Boehner and galvanized opposition to Mr. Obama’s plan, which is considered highly unlikely to survive opposition from both parties in the Senate.
“I will do everything in my power to stop President Obama and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi from raising taxes on working families, small-business people, and investors,” Mr. Cantor said in a statement.
Asked about Mr. Boehner’s comments, a spokesman for House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence referred reporters to a rally Sunday in which the Indiana Republican said, “No American should face a tax increase in January … not one. We will not compromise our economy to accommodate the class warfare rhetoric of this administration.”
Despite the perceived split in the party, Michael Steel, Mr. Boehner’s spokesman, said the Ohio Republican “supports Sen. McConnell” and “has said repeatedly, he wants to stop all of Washington Democrats’ tax hikes.”
The fight over the tax cuts passed during the Bush presidency in 2001 and 2003 picked up speed last week after Mr. Obama traveled to Cleveland to announce his push to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to the middle and lower classes, but allow tax cuts for wealthier Americans to expire at year’s end.
“Let me be clear to Mr. Boehner and everyone else. We should not hold middle-class tax cuts hostage any longer,” the president said. The administration “is ready this week to give tax cuts to every American making $250,000 or less,” he said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs gave a similar message Monday and made it clear that much of the White House’s efforts heading into November’s midterm elections will focus on reminding voters about Mr. Bush.
“We’re going to take the next 50-some days to convince the public that’s exactly what the Republicans would do - back to the Bush policies,” Mr. Gibbs said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show.
Don Stewart, Mr. McConnell’s spokesman, shrugged off Mr. Gibbs’ remarks.
“You mean like extending the tax relief? Oh, wait, they support that too. Weird,” Mr. Stewart said.
In fact, with the economy shaping up as the election’s dominant issue, some Democrats agree that all the Bush-era tax cuts should be allowed to remain on the books, at least in the near term, so as not to hurt businesses that create the most jobs.
On Monday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who aligns with Democrats, said, “I don’t think it makes sense to raise any federal taxes during the uncertain economy we are struggling through.”
“The more money we leave in private hands, the quicker our economic recovery will be. And that means I will do everything I can to make sure Congress extends the so-called Bush tax cuts for another year,” he said.
Others, including Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, have said the proposals should not draw a distinction at $250,000.
Still, Mr. Obama continued to make his case Monday that higher-income taxpayers - individuals making more than $200,000 and families with incomes higher than $250,000 - can afford to take the hit, and that the government needs the money.
“We’re still in a still in this wrestling match with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell,” he said.
Extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent to 3 percent of Americans would cost $700 billion over 10 years, “and we just can’t afford it,” he argued. “The vast majority of Democrats” agree.
Business advocates, though, say that because of the way they are structured, many small businesses pay taxes as individual filers, thus the tax increases will hit them at a time when they are already suffering.
Congressional analysts say renewing the tax cuts for everyone would cost the government $4 trillion over the next decade. Republicans are banking on the fact that even though voters are enraged by deficit spending they won’t want to give up tax breaks in a sputtering economy.