Saying the foundations of representative government are at stake, Senate Republicans on Thursday filibustered a tax cuts package to protest Democrats' denial of a chance to offer amendments.
But the vote, the second GOP filibuster this week, created an unusual situation in which Republicans opposed tax reductions and Democrats championed them, saying veterans, teachers, college students and others will suffer if the cuts aren't approved by the end of the year.
Hours earlier, Democrats announced that they would take the first steps early next month to try to change the First Amendment's free speech protections, overturning Supreme Court precedent and giving Congress the right to limit who can spend money in elections and how much they are allowed to spend.
Fights over the constitutional amendment and the way the Senate is being run underscored a toxic atmosphere as Democrats fight to preserve their majority and Republicans sense a chance to gain control of the chamber in November's elections.
"At least you have to give them marks for consistency. They are already muzzling our constituents by blocking amendments. Now they want to muzzle them even more by changing the Bill of Rights," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told his colleagues just ahead of the filibuster vote. "This is completely out of control."
Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated by strict control of the Senate floor by Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. Using complex parliamentary maneuvers, Mr. Reid has blocked the chance to offer amendments on a bipartisan energy efficiency bill and now on tax cuts.
Republicans say they should have a chance to amend the bill, including forcing votes on issues such as building the Keystone XL pipeline and repealing a tax on medical devices that was included in Obamacare. Both of those policies received support in nonbinding votes last year, but they have yet to come to the Senate floor in legislation that could be signed by the president.
Mr. Reid said Republicans want unlimited debate on amendments that have little to do with tax policy, such as withdrawing Obamacare subsidies from congressional staffers.
He accused Republicans of blockading the Senate in order to reward the Koch brothers — wealthy businessmen who support conservative causes. To combat their influence, he said, a constitutional amendment is necessary.
"Amending our Constitution is not something any of us should take lightly, but the flood of special interest money in our American democracy is one of the glaring threats our system of government has ever faced," he said.
He added that his hand was forced by heavy spending, reportedly more than $100 million planned, by Koch-related organizations this year.
"There is absolutely no question the Koch brothers are in a category of their own," Mr. Reid said. "No one else is pumping money into the shadowy campaign organizations and campaigns like they are. There isn't even a close second. They are doing this to promote issues that make themselves even richer."
The first step toward the constitutional amendment will be taken early next month with a hearing by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
Democrats' proposal would overturn a number of Supreme Court precedents dating back to the landmark 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision that declared spending on political campaigns to be free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Mr. Reid and his fellow Democrats say the government should have the ability to decide who can spend money in elections and how much they are allowed to spend. That would apply to candidates and other Americans, including the interest and pressure groups that play an increasing role in campaign advertising.
Democrats are unlikely to muster the two-thirds vote needed in the Senate for the constitutional amendment, much less win support in the House and in the states for getting it ratified.
Likewise, they fell six votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster on the tax bill Thursday.
Only one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, voted with Democrats, who also were hurt by several absences among their own troops.
The tax cut package would extend, for two more years, a series of breaks that benefit certain groups such as teachers who spend their own money on school supplies and college graduates with student loans. The package also includes continued breaks for wind turbines and for research and development.
The $85 billion cost is not offset, meaning it would significantly deepen the deficit lawmakers have worked so hard to cut.
The House is working on a different set of tax breaks, making a half-dozen of them permanent, at a cost of more than $300 billion over the next decade. Those, too, are not offset.
Republican aides predicted that the Senate would return to the tax breaks bill before the end of the year.
Both the House and Senate bills would test President Obama, who has pushed for higher taxes as part of a "balanced" approach to the deficit.
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