WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Tim Walz is looking to employ a rarely used (and rarely successful) procedural maneuver to force a vote on a bill looking to provide middle-class tax relief ahead of the so-called “fiscal cliff” deadline at the end of the month.
On Tuesday, Walz filed a discharge petition that, if it receives 218 signatures from House members, would force a vote on a bill that would maintain tax rates for couples making less than $250,000 while allowing rates on higher tax brackets to increase. The bill in question is similar to one the Senate passed in July.
Since the discharge petition would require significant Republican support to pass, it’s unlikely to work, but Walz said he hopes he can get Republicans to sign on to the measure because it’s focused on an issue that has broad support in Washington: extending tax cuts for the middle class.
“I don’t see where the political backlash is against you for doing what all of us agree needs to be done,” Walz said. “This is the part that we do agree upon.”
The last successful discharge petition came in 2002 (discharge petitions are often use by the minority to force movement on a bill the majority opposes, thus the low success rate). None of the five petitions filed previously this session (including one from Walz looking to force movement on his congressional ethics legislation) have gotten close to passage.
But Walz said he sees an opening for success this time: A smattering of Republicans have expressed willingness to move forward with President Obama’s proposal to continue the lower tax rates on income up to $250,000 while raising taxes above that. But even if all 190 House Democrats sign the petition, they’ll need at least 28 Republicans to join the effort.
Even Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), who introduced the bill to which the discharge petition applies, said he doesn’t expect that to happen. But Levin said the petition isn’t simply a symbolic measure by Democrats; rather, it’s a strategic move to force Republicans to sign on to a plan they’ve resisted, for strategic reasons of their own, up to now.
“The main stumbling block right now is just this: the refusal of the Republicans to allow the tax cut for the very wealthy to end and to allow the tax cut for the middle class to persist,” Levin said. “They’re stumbling around trying to find a way to address what they say is the issue of revenues. There is no way to address revenues without looking at tax rates.”
That’s the basic idea behind the petition: If Republicans don’t sign on, Democrats can paint them as so committed to maintaining high-income tax cuts that they’re willing to let all tax cuts expire, even those for the middle class.
But Republicans — who support keeping all taxes low — would have no leverage if the Democratic tax cut bill becomes law. Democrats would have no incentive to consider tax cuts on high-income earners if they’ve already won their middle-class tax breaks through separate legislation.
Republicans have opposed allowing any of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to expire as part of a year-end deficit reduction package, warning that higher tax rates will hurt small businesses. They want a fiscal cliff deal to skew toward spending cuts and reforms to entitlement programs rather than higher taxes.
Democrats insist a deficit reduction package must allow the Bush tax cuts for high-income earners to lapse, as scheduled, at the end of the year. If lawmakers can’t reach an agreement by Dec. 31, tax rates across all income levels will increase.
The Senate passed its version of the tax cut bill in July, a week before House Republicans passed a bill that would extend the Bush tax cuts for all tax brackets. Walz was one of 19 House Democrats to vote for the Republican bill — and he voted against an alternative piece of legislation modeled after the bill he’s now insisting the House approve.
Walz said he opposed the bill over the summer because it didn’t address a lapse in current estate tax rates and exemptions. Walz said Tuesday that he still supports extending current estate tax policy, but that the underlying issue of income tax rates should take priority now.
“My constituents are saying, in the meantime, just move this. This hits the bulk of the people,” he said.
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry