A Devil’s Bargain: A Temporary Tax-Cut Extension for New START?

by Daniel Foster

Will the Republicans cut a deal that delivers President Obama passage of New START in the lame duck? Recent developments would seem to suggest that it’s a live possibility.

Senator Voinovich (R. Ohio), who previously expressed reservations about the treaty, now says he is leaning toward ratification and wants a vote this year. Senator McCain (R., Ariz.) told Good Morning America that he is also holding out hope for a lame-duck START vote. And perhaps most significantly, The Washington Post is reporting that the White House may be willing to trade a temporary, across-the-board extension of current tax rates in exchange for a vote on the ratification of New START:

The two sides discussed a series of issues that Obama has pushed to resolve before the end of the year, including unemployment benefits that are set to expire and the new START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. McConnell deflected questions about the treaty, saying it was the “unanimous view” of all 42 Senate Republicans to first settle the tax dispute and to agree on a funding deal for the federal government.

Yet a possible end game that appeared to taking shape, numerous Senate sources said, could give Republicans the across-the-board tax-cut extensions that they are seeking, albeit in temporary form, in exchange for a Senate vote on the arms control treaty, a top priority for Obama.

But there are a few things wrong with this. One is that a top GOP Senate aide just told me the idea of such a deal is baloney (though he used a more colorful word).

“The two are completely unrelated,” the aide said, adding that he “would be surprised if any Republican would try to link a national security matter to avoiding the largest tax hike in the history of this country.”

But more to the point, the Democrats don’t really have the leverage to propose this sort of bargain, for both procedural and substantive reasons. The Post story gives the impression that Republicans are putting up procedural roadblocks preventing even an up-or-down vote on the treaty. But consider that New START sits atop the Senate’s Executive Calendar, meaning that per Senate rules Harry Reid can bring it to the floor at any time, without debate. Sure, once the treaty is on the Senate floor it is subject the usual procedural hurdles, including filibuster. But since treaties require a two-thirds majority for ratification anyway, the filibuster is redundant.

On the substance, Republicans have no reason to cave on tax cuts in the lame duck. As leaders Boehner and McConnell suggest in their Post op-ed today, if Democrats won’t give them a vote on an across-the-board extension of current rates in the lame duck, they’ll let the tax cuts expire and deal with the issue retroactively when the 112th is seated.

So no, it doesn’t look like the Republicans need to deliver the president his foreign policy parchment to prevent a massive tax hike. This is the deal that isn’t.

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