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Votes Aimed to Embarrass Opponents Fill Congress Calendar

In offering up a “Buffett rule” proposal for a vote today, Senate Democrats are following a pattern of measures designed to raise taxes for millionaires and end tax breaks for oil companies, just as Senate Republicans have sought votes to speed a Canadian oil pipeline.

All the votes have one thing in common: They are doomed to fail while yielding fodder for campaign ads. Party leaders are seeking an edge by forcing the other party to defeat a popular measure ahead of the November election, which will determine control of the White House and Congress.

“Even if you can’t make a law, you can still make a point,” John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, said in a telephone interview. Campaign workers “are watching these roll calls very carefully and preparing for attack ads,” he said.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are casting their call for higher taxes for top U.S. earners as one of fairness and support for the middle class. With 53 votes in the 100-member Senate, Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to advance the minimum-tax plan for the wealthiest taxpayers. Still, Democrats plan to use the vote in campaign ads targeted at Republicans in some congressional races.

Senate Republicans, seizing on rising gas prices, forced a vote last month on a measure to speed up TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Sending a Message

Today’s vote is scheduled for the day before the April 17 tax-filing deadline. House Republican leaders plan to drive their tax message this week by holding a vote on a bill that would provide a $46 billion small-business tax break. Under the measure, sponsored by Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, companies with fewer than 500 workers in 2010 or 2011 would be eligible to deduct up to 20 percent of their profits in 2012.

In the House, Republicans controlling the chamber can more effectively push through their agenda, so they use slightly different tactics to put Democrats on the defensive. In an effort to brand the Obama administration as imposing too many regulations, House Republican leaders at times have sought to roll back regulations that don’t exist.

The House on Dec. 8 passed a bill to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from tightening air-pollution controls on farm dust, a regulation the agency said it has no plans to issue.

Lines of Attack

House Democrats, meanwhile, have relied on a procedural move, typically made by the minority party just before a vote on legislation, to generate lines of attack against Republicans.

Richard Carmona, an Arizona Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, has a campaign website chiding Republican candidate Jeff Flake for opposing Democrats when they sought on March 27 to return a bill to a committee to be amended. The amendment would have let the Federal Communications Commission bar employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their passwords to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The site calls on Flake, now a U.S. House member, to disclose his Facebook password. It asks visitors: “Since Jeff Flake wants your boss to have your passwords for your social media accounts, shouldn’t he have to share his?” All but one House Republican voted against the Democrats’ proposal, which was defeated 184-236.

‘Obsession with Elections’

“There has become an obsession with elections,” Jennifer Duffy, an editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said in a telephone interview. “That is what people think about almost more than anything else, and so instead of contemplating the political implications occasionally, they’re considered first.”

An Ipsos/Reuters poll released March 14 showed that 64 percent of Americans, including 49 percent of Republicans, support a minimum 30 percent tax rate for those with incomes exceeding $1 million. Obama named the plan the Buffett rule after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who says preferential tax treatment for capital gains and dividends allows him to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, today highlighted a Gallup poll released April 13 that found 60 percent of Americans, including 43 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of independents, support the Buffett Rule. The telephone poll of 1,016 adults was conducted April 9-12 and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

‘Romney Rule’

“The Buffett rule is proof positive that the tax issue has been turned around on Republicans,” Schumer told reporters on a conference call, adding that the policy could be called the “Romney rule” after presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Romney, a co-founder of Bain Capital LLC, earned $21.6 million in 2010 and paid 13.9 percent of that in income taxes, according to tax returns he released in January. He has asked for an extension to file his 2011 returns.

The Senate vote is “showing a contrast” with Republicans, California Representative Xavier Becerra, a member of the Democratic leadership, said in an April 13 telephone interview.

“It will give the American public a sense of what people mean when they talk about tax fairness,” Becerra said.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said yesterday that the administration would continue to advocate for the Buffett rule after today’s vote.

“If we don’t push for things that make sense, then we’re not governing,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

‘Never-Ending Chess Game’

Although negative campaign ads won’t be aired in earnest until later this election year, Duffy said, the “never-ending chess game” of politically motivated votes is affecting how candidates define themselves in ads and while campaigning.

Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, targeted by Republicans for ouster in November, ran an ad in February saying she “cuts taxes for the middle class” while her opponents “want more tax breaks for multimillionaires and oil companies.”

Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters April 12 that Democrats would highlight Republican votes that they “believe are out of step with the interests of the American people and their communities.”

Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat challenging Republican Senator Scott Brown, sent an e-mail April 11 to supporters claiming that Brown agrees with Romney “that it’s OK for millionaires and billionaires to pay a lower tax rate than everyone else.”

Tax Fairness

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who is seeking a second term this year, told reporters today on a conference call that “the underlying issue here is one of fairness in the tax system.”

“It is a little bit ridiculous that we have people making these enormous incomes paying lower tax rates than those that are just solidly in the middle class and working hard to get by,” said Whitehouse, chief sponsor of the Senate legislation.

Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who is running for the Senate, is the chief sponsor of a House version of the Buffett rule measure, which has put her in the front ranks of Democrats calling on Republican leaders in that chamber to schedule a vote on the bill.

“Both parties are working hard to frame the agenda for the fall campaign,” former Minnesota Representative Vin Weber, a Republican, said in a telephone interview. “Certainly that’s what the vote on the Buffett rule is all about. You can see from the president’s speeches that this is exactly what he wants to be talking about.”

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