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Scot Lehigh

GOP makes high-handed threat

Mitch McConnell and his troops offer a stark declaration of priorities. Mitch McConnell and his troops offer
a stark declaration of priorities. (Reuters)
By Scot Lehigh
December 3, 2010

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TALK ABOUT your high-handed political behavior. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans said they will block any action in what remains of the legislative session until Democrats agree to extend the Bush tax cuts for upper earners.

That isn’t quite the way Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his troops worded their threat, mind you. In their letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, they warned that they wouldn’t agree to go forward “with any legislative item until . . . we have prevented the tax increase that is currently awaiting all American taxpayers.’’

That might sound like concern for all taxpayers. But President Obama and the Democrats are already willing — no, make that eager — to extend the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $250,000. So if Republicans agreed, that deal could be cut in a nanosecond.

But Republican senators want the tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 extended as well. And so they have declared they will hold everything else hostage until that happens.

You couldn’t offer a starker declaration of priorities. Or, for that matter, of attitude. McConnell’s letter, after all, came just a day after a White House meeting between the president and congressional Republicans led to the establishment of a negotiating group to fashion a compromise on the tax cuts.

The GOP’s new demand is framed as a way to help the economy. The letter starts by bemoaning the nation’s high unemployment rate and declaring the need for more private-sector jobs. (As an aside, that same lack of jobs would also seem to be a strong argument for extending unemployment benefits, but conservative economic dogma holds that it’s uncertainty over future tax rates, and not lack of demand, that is restraining job creation.) The missive then stresses the need to prevent “a job-killing tax hike,’’ citing an array of misleading talking points to obscure the fact that only about 3 percent of small businesses would be affected if breaks for the well-to-do expire.

Now, the emerging sense in Washington is that Democrats will ultimately agree to extend tax cuts for at least some higher earners. If so, they need to make the extension a short one, with the understanding that the fight over those tax cuts is one they’ll need to wage in the near future.

After all, there will never be a time when conservative Republicans declare that the economy has recovered enough to let any income tax cuts expire. Rather, the GOP’s Mobius-strip mantra runs this way: When the country falls into a recession, tax cuts are needed to jump-start the economy; when the recession ends, you must keep the tax cuts or see the recovery stall; and when the private sector is once again hitting on all cylinders, you can’t raise taxes for fear of lurching back into the recessionary ditch.

Further, McConnell is as partisan — and unyielding — a Senate minority leader as we’ve seen in recent memory. Lest anyone forget, he recently declared that his single most important priority was to render Obama a one-term president. (If a Democratic congressional leader had said the same about George W. Bush, the Fox News studios would have erupted like Mount Vesuvius.)

Although the relevant take-away from the mid-term elections was that anxious voters want the two parties to work together to solve the nation’s problems, McConnell has reinterpreted the Republican Party’s gains as a call to keep the upper-income tax cuts. That despite polls before and after the election showing that more Americans want to see those cuts expire than to have them extended.

Further, given our dismal fiscal situation, even when recovery comes, it won’t be possible to tame the federal budget deficit at our current levels of taxation and revenue.

“You can’t on the one hand profess to be terribly concerned about the deficit and on the other say you are going to permanently extend the tax cuts, particularly those for upper-income people,’’ says Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition. “There is a disconnect there.’’

Yes there is. And at some point, responsible political leaders will have to stop sidestepping that fight and start educating the public to that reality.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.