WASHINGTON -- The controversial $900 billion tax package President Obama negotiated with Republicans cleared a major hurdle in the Senate on Monday, setting the stage for passage later this week. The fate of the legislation in the House is uncertain.
The measure the Senate is poised to approve extends for two years Bush-era federal income tax cuts Republicans made a priority of getting for all income levels. At the top of objections from liberal Democrats was Obama handing Republicans a generous estate tax benefit -- with the rate to be 35 percent for estates valued at more than $5 million. In return, Obama won extension of unemployment benefits and a trim in payroll taxes for a year.
Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) delivered a marathon filibuster-style speech for over eight hours against the deal, arguing it is a giveaway for millionaires. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech on Monday he disliked in particular "the Democrats' insistence that we borrow the money we need to pay for a further extension of unemployment insurance."
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) voted to end debate and advance the tax package, which passed on an 83-15 roll call; at least 60 votes were needed. Thirty-seven Republicans joined 46 Democrats in voting yes.
Kirk said in a statement, "I voted for the bill to prevent a massive tax hike from hitting Illinois families and hurting our economy during this Great Recession. President Obama and Senate leaders agree that this legislation will help end the recession, adding jobs and restoring tax-rate certainty to this fragile economy. . . . After enactment of this legislation, I will turn my attention to cutting federal spending, reducing the cost of Congress and the executive branch to bring down the debt."
Earlier on Monday Kirk sent out an e-mail where he said he was looking for guidance on how to vote. In the e-mail he claimed, incorrectly, "some House leaders say this legislation is misguided and taxes should go up." Obama and Democrats had always wanted to extend the break to earners with incomes below $250,000 but as part of the compromise, Obama gave that up.
After the 60 votes were locked in, Obama went to the White House briefing room to read a statement where he touted the bipartisan nature of the deal. Obama's White House team is bracing for the new reality it faces next year, when Republicans control the House and Democratic strength is weakened in the Senate.
The Senate could vote on the tax bill itself today or Wednesday.