Politics

Tax Cuts And 'Don't Ask' Wrap Washington's Week

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As the Senate plans Saturday's votes on the Bush-era tax cuts, NPR's David Welna talks to host Scott Simon about the cuts, the deficit commission, the hearings on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the rest of the week that was in Washington.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's Saturday, must be time for the U.S. Senate to vote on tax cuts. Lawmakers are putting in a rare Saturday appearance, taking votes and making statements. In fact, it was quite a week for statements in Washington, D.C., from negotiations on the Bush-era tax cuts to the deficit commission to hearings on repealing the don't ask, don't tell policy. Here to tell us what it may all may signify is NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID WELNA: Sure, Scott.

SIMON: And let's start with tax cuts, 'cause the Senate's in session today, as we mentioned. Yet the real action, I gather, is going on behind closed door.

WELNA: Yes. Well, you know, what you're seeing going on in the Senate chamber today is largely symbolic because Democrats know perfectly well that Republicans are going to block any tax cut extension that doesn't keep all the Bush-era tax cuts in place next year.

They're voting on two different proposals. One would cap household incomes eligible for the extension at a quarter of a million dollars, and the other would cap it at a million dollars. And since Republicans seem determined to vote against both those measures, Democrats plan to accuse them of holding those lower income tax breaks hostage to tax cuts for millionaires. You can almost hear those campaign ads already playing on your TV.

And Democrats are just as determined to vote down the Republicans' proposal to make all the tax cuts permanent. So once they cancel each other out, they'll be forced to reach a deal or those tax cuts will expire four weeks from today. And since neither party wants to be blamed for that happening, talks have been going on behind the scenes to try to find a compromise. And we may see one quite soon because Republicans are blocking everything else in the lame duck until they get a deal on tax cuts.

SIMON: So if deadlines are the mother of invention, what would be watching for?

WELNA: Well, I think it's a safe bet that Democrats will give in to Republicans' demands to have all the tax cuts extended, but only for two or three years. And in return for that, Democrats expect Republicans to allow a renewal of emergency long-term unemployment insurance that expired this week, and it's left a couple of million people without jobs facing losing those benefits for the holidays.

Democrats also want to vote on the DREAM Act that would give people entered the country illegally as children a path to citizenship, and they want the Senate to take up and ratify the Nuclear Arms Control Treaty with Russia that's known as New START, all before Christmas.

SIMON: At the same time, Congress is contemplating what might be blowing a big hole in the budget by extending tax cuts. The president's deficit commission has put forward some pretty explicit, deep and stern proposals for long-range fiscal constraint. Now, it didn't get the votes needed for the plan to go directly to Congress, but it certainly got a lot of attention this week. How do you assess what went on?

WELNA: Well, I don't think that this is going anywhere in this Congress. But the fact that seven out of the 12 lawmakers who were on that commission actually voted for the plan indicates these proposals do have bipartisan support. It's just that while everybody wants to fix the problem, lawmakers don't want to pay any political price for doing it. So I think it's stalled for now.

SIMON: And then let me ask you about don't ask, don't tell, because this week we heard from Pentagon and military leaders about the possible repeal of that 1993 law that bans gays from serving openly in the armed services. Where does the debate stand as we talk today?

WELNA: Right now it's in limbo. Everything depends on the Senate taking up the big defense bill that the repeal is a part of during this lame duck session. But many Republicans are opposed to repeal and maybe no one is more so than John McCain. At a hearing on the repeal yesterday, McCain made it pretty clear he's going to stand in the way of letting that bill be considered in the lame duck.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I will not agree to have this bill go forward and neither will, I believe, that 41 of my colleagues will either, because our economy is in the tank. Our economy is in the tank and the American people want that issue addressed.

WELNA: Of course, letting that defense bill die, there's little chance of a repeal of don't ask, don't tell being revived in the next Congress, which will have Republicans in charge of the House and more Republicans in the Senate.

SIMON: There were some things passed: a food safety bill in the Senate, most sweeping overhaul in decades, and a child nutrition bill that now goes to President Obama for his signature. What might that mean for menus that we see?

WELNA: Well, the food safety bill is actually hung up on a legislative technicality right now, so don't expect your holiday meals to be any safer. And as for the child nutrition bill, whole wheat pizza crusts and low-fat cheese are coming soon to your local lunchroom.

SIMON: NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna. Thanks so much.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Scott.

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