Senators hold their noses and support Obama's tax-cut deal.

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Dec. 13 2010 8:50 PM

Bipartisanship Now

Senators hold their noses and support the tax-cut deal.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was angry, with an emphasis on "was." Last week she told the Huffington Post that a tax-rate deal that benefited the wealthiest among us represented "moral corruptness." On Friday, she joined Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for a lengthy filibuster-of-sorts, using some debate time to pound the podium once again about moral corruption.

Yet on Monday, in a conversation with reporters before the vote on whether to let the tax deal proceed, Landrieu appeared calm. "I wasn't outraged about the bill," Landrieu said. "What was I outraged about?" "You were describing the deal that had been struck," said Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney. "Not the whole deal," said Landrieu. "I was outraged about one portion of the deal. And I'm still outraged about it." Landrieu counted off the tax-rate cuts that would benefit "the families of millionaires" and said the negotiators never should have included them. "That is what I object to. I did not say I was against the whole package."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Less than an hour later, Landrieu voted to let debate continue on the tax deal. Sanders and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who had also spoken during the "filiBernie," voted no, but nine Democrats and five Republicans ditched them and joined Landrieu for an overall vote of 83-14. Their votes make final passage of the deal all but certain.

But that didn't mean senators couldn't still take swipes at the bill before helping to move it along. "It is almost an Orwellian experience here on the floor of the United States Senate, as compared to the rest of America," said Arizona Sen. John McCain shortly before the vote began. "Rather than just extend the tax breaks, which is what the majority of Americans say they want, this bill includes un-needed, unwanted, unnecessary sweeteners to, I guess, get votes." The bill, he said, extended tax breaks for ethanol and dozens of other special projects. "This is precisely the same business-as-usual behavior that Republicans told Tea Party voters they wouldn't engage in!"

That drew an immediate rebuke from Iowa's Chuck Grassley, whose state has more to gain from ethanol tax breaks than Arizona and who argued that keeping the ethanol tax break was only one of many kludges in the bill. "I don't quite understand," said Grassley, "when there's 72 provisions in this bill that are expiring, how somebody today is going to say that's bad tax policy." The ethanol break was necessary, he said. "God only made so much fossil fuel!"

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who has opposed ethanol tax breaks in the past, held his nose and voted for the deal. "People talk about the wind and ethanol subsidies," Inhofe said, "but you're talking about 0.3 percent and 1.7 percent of the total. That's a pretty good deal, a lot better than I thought would ever be struck."

It's inevitably awkward when Democratic senators line up to vote for what was originally a Republican policy. The people who claim to speak for the bases of both parties had, slowly, come around to the opinion that the deal was a loser for all concerned. Liberal pundits, the AFL-CIO, and MoveOn have attacked the deal as a sell-out; the hyperactive Progressive Change Campaign Committee has bought some ads in Iowa going after Obama for caving. Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, RedState, and the Tea Party Patriots had all opposed the deal. Charles Krauthammer used hisWashington Post column to call the deal a "swindle."

The opposition that might have worried senators the most came from Moody's. On Monday, the rating agency warned that the United States was looking at a bond-rating downgrade if a tax deal that wasn't paid for was signed into law. That was exactly the sort of problem that pushed Democrats to demand an end to the Bush tax cuts and Republicans to threaten to block a rise in the debt ceiling.

That's all for later. Democrats promoted the deal by echoing the White House, warning that failure to move the tax deal ahead would throw the economy into a recession. Plus, they argue, they extracted good concessions from the GOP. "On unemployment insurance, they've adopted our policies," said Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey. "Wholly! Completely! The combined effect will be very positive for jobs, and I cite Mark Zandi and some others on that." When I mentioned that the economist Zandi's endorsement of the stimulus package was derided by many conservatives, Casey said, "I don't think there's any doubt that the stimulus was 3 million jobs."

Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, who has three weeks left in the Senate—he was famously beaten by Tea Partiers in the GOP primary—announced his own support for the deal, then unwrapped a miniature Snickers bar and chewed as reporters tried to draw him out. "The tax deal was carefully constructed, and I'm in favor of it," Bennett said. When National Review's Robert Costa nudged him about the subsidies in the bill, Bennett repeated himself: "The tax deal was carefully crafted and carefully put together and I'm in favor of it." This is what bipartisanship looks like—gloomy, uncomfortable, and carrying the promise of fights to come.

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