Battle lines drawn on Bush-era tax cuts

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(CBS News) Here's one thing most Republicans and Democrats can agree on: Congress should act to keep taxes from going up for the average American when the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of the year.

Particularly in an election year, however, coming to agreement to do so is much easier said than done.

On Wednesday, the Democrat-led Senate plans to hold a procedural vote to start considering a $250 billion Democratic bill that would extend the tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 per year and couples making $250,000 per year. The tax cuts on income above those levels would be allowed to expire, which would mean increased taxes on 2.5 million of the nation's wealthiest households. (The highest rates would increase from 33 percent to 36 percent and 35 percent to 39.6 percent.) The Democratic plan would also increase the estate tax, which is now 35 percent on estates over $5 million per person, to 55 percent on estates over $1 million per person. It would also increase the top capital gains tax rate and limit itemized tax deductions.

The Democratic plan, which is similar though not identical to President Obama's proposal, needs 60 votes to proceed. If it gets those votes, Republicans plan to offer their alternative tax plan as an amendment. The $405 billion GOP plan would extend the tax cuts for everyone, including the wealthiest American, while (unlike the Democratic plan) allowing certain tax breaks to expire for millions of the poorest Americans. Republicans maintain that those tax breaks, which benefit low income college students and recipients of the earned income tax credit and Child Tax Credit, were always meant to be temporary.

It's possible that Senate Democrats and Republicans will agree on an alternate way forward before the vote takes place. If they do not, the Democratic plan is likely to fall short of the 60 votes it needs to move forward - which means the GOP plan would never come to a vote. House Republicans plan to vote next week on a plan similar to the Senate Republican plan, which would extend all the Bush tax cuts for one year.

All of this is political theater at this point, of course: The Senate Democratic plan can't pass the Republican-led House, and the House Republican plan can't pass the Democrat-led Senate. But the posturing plays into Democratic efforts to criticize Republicans as favoring the rich at the expense of average Americans.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized Democrats on that front Tuesday stating that "this is more about messaging or passing the buck than it is about helping anybody or preventing an economic calamity at the end of this year."

Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to the competing plans to hammer home their message.

"When the Senate votes tomorrow, let's remember what they're voting on," Vice President Joe Biden said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "The other side claims that this is the best way to grow the economy, and they say that you know if you take care of - and I believe they believe it - if you take care of the very wealthy, if you lean into the top, everything will as the old phrase goes, trickle down. Now, that's their way of saying it's the best way to grow the economy. The problem is, you know, we've seen that movie before, and we know how it ends."

A White House report released Tuesday found that without action to extend the cuts, a family of four making $50,000 per year will see its taxes increase $2,200. Biden argued that Republicans realize if they allow final votes on the Democratic plan to extend the cuts for all but the wealthiest Americans, they won't have the popular support to extend them for top earners down the road.

"What they're doing is very simple, and you can understand it from their perspective, they're holding the middle class tax cuts hostage," he said.

With reporting by John Nolen, Jill Jackson and Chloe Arensberg.

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