In fight over tax breaks, GOP senators threaten to shut down Congress

WASHINGTON -- Republican senators -- including both of Georgia's -- threatened to try to bring Congress to a halt for the remainder of the year unless Democrats agree to first vote on budget issues and the extension of Bush-era tax cuts.

Along with making a pointed ultimatum to Democrats, the gesture on Wednesday illustrates a growing post-election frustration among many in Congress.

"We've got to reach an agreement [on tax cuts] ... if we want to start putting other things on the agenda," said Sen. Johnny Isakson. "We don't need Harry [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] to keep throwing things on the wall to see what sticks."

In a letter to Reid, all 42 Republican senators pledged to filibuster any legislative item during the remainder of the year that doesn't relate to an extension of Bush-era tax cuts or funding of the federal government.

Reid sharply rebuked the Republican maneuver.

"With this letter, they have simply put in writing the political strategy that the Republicans pursued this entire Congress -- namely obstruct, delay, obstruct, delay action on critical matters and then blame the Democrats for not addressing the needs of the American people," the Nevada Democrat said on the Senate floor.

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss said he and his GOP colleagues are frustrated that the Senate under Reid's leadership is wasting the waning hours of the year on issues such as food safety, immigration and gays in the military instead of focusing on the economy and tax cuts.

"We've done nothing," since returning to Washington for the so-called "lame-duck" session of Congress, Georgia's senior senator said in an interview. "We're sitting here spinning our wheels instead of making sure taxes don’t go up and making sure we keep the government running."

Without congressional approval, the government could run out of funds at the end of the year. Congress is expected to pass a short-term extension of federal funding by as early as the end of this week, but the issue of tax cut extensions is more contentious.

The latest partisan showdown hit a high point Wednesday afternoon, when Democrats took the Senate floor to accuse Republicans of trying to stop the government just to ensure tax breaks for the richest Americans.

"Here you have a Republican Party saying they aren't going to do anything ... until they get their taxpayer-funded bonuses for their millionaires and billionaires," said Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that Bush-era tax cuts for almost all Americans that are set to expire Dec. 31 should be extended.

But Democrats object to extending the tax cuts for the 2 percent or so of Americans who make more than $1 million per year, saying the country can't afford it.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York asked his Republican colleagues if they'd be willing to compromise and agree to give all Americans except those who make more than $1 million continued tax breaks for now.

"Let the record show no Republicans ... accepted that compromise," Schumer said rhetorically.

Republicans responded by saying that ending the tax breaks for the richest Americans would hurt small businesses and ultimately, anybody looking for a job.

"Raising taxes is not the way to lower unemployment," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "We're trying to do something to help this economy to allow the private sector to create jobs and reduce unemployment."

If Republicans are indeed interested in reducing unemployment, Democrats challenged, they should quickly pass a series of Democratic-backed bills they say would stimulate the economy -- bills that would extend unemployment insurance, create clean-energy tax credits and develop a new strategy to revitalize U.S. manufacturing.

Republicans called the flurry of proposals a ruse.

"This is not the way to handle this," said Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. "Let's stop the theater."

Off the Senate floor, Chambliss acknowledged that neither political party is innocent when it comes to political gamesmanship.

"I would have to say Republicans are just as guilty as Democrats of playing these games from time to time," Chambliss said.

"What's different now is that [Democrats] are pretty obviously trying to cram some stuff down the throats of the American people during the time they have a better chance of doing it," before Republicans take control of the U.S. House in January, Chambliss said.

"That's not right," he added.