Congress is back for a final four-week session before the midterm elections, and lawmakers are facing a politically divisive question: How many of the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of the year, should get extended?
Democrats have split over what to do, and the issue is now dividing Republicans as well.
Until a couple of days ago, it seemed congressional Republicans were on the same page about extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts. But a crack in that united front appeared Sunday when House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio told CBS' Face the Nation he could see voting for what most Democrats want, which is to extend the cuts only for those with household income under $250,000.
"If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I'll vote for them," Boehner said.
Monday, the No. 2 House Republican appeared to reject Boehner's willingness to vote for a measure allowing the tax cuts for high income to expire. In a statement, Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia declared that "raising taxes in this environment is a nonstarter for me."
Former GOP Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota thinks Boehner has actually chosen the smarter political position because "you don't want to be in the position of voting against a middle-class tax cut."
"Republicans need to quickly get their one voice together on this issue," Weber said. "Boehner understands the politics of this pretty well, and I wouldn't march away from him if I were the Republicans."
But other leading Republicans are also insisting they won't give in to Democrats on the tax cuts.
"We've got to stick by what we've said," insisted Iowa's Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "We feel that the best thing for our country is to not increase taxes on small business and take money away from the cash flow of small businesses."
For his part, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky introduced a measure Monday that would prevent all income tax rates from rising next year.
"The good news is there's a growing chorus of Democrats, including at least five right here in the Senate, who are coming around on this issue," McConnell said. "They oppose the tax hikes the administration is proposing, as Sen. Lieberman put it earlier, I don't think it makes sense to raise any federal taxes during the uncertain economy we are struggling through."
That's Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with the Senate Democrats. Lieberman made it clear Monday night that while he does support extending the Bush-era tax cuts even for the highest income brackets, he could also vote for the more limited extension sought by President Obama.
"There's very broad agreement on the middle-class tax cuts," Lieberman said. "Therefore, we ought to get it done. Then we can argue about tax cuts for higher-income people."
But Democrats are, if anything, more divided than Republicans on what to do about the tax cuts. Like Lieberman, Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson wants all of the tax cuts extended, but he can't see voting for a measure that lets top tax rates rise.
"It'd be very hard for me to support that," Nelson said.
Those in Congress who do support letting the top tax cuts expire are feeling emboldened by polls showing that public opinion is on their side.
"The rich are getting richer, everybody else is getting poorer, these guys do not need more tax breaks," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont. "It is a dumb idea."
The rich won't get all of their tax breaks extended under the Democrats' plan, but they will get some.
No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois compared his party's plan to what Republicans want: "Under our plan of capping this tax cut at $250,000, the millionaire is only going to get $6,300 in a tax cut. I don't know if they'll even notice it, $6,300. But under Sen. McConnell's plan, the centerpiece of the Republican campaign strategy for November, he wants the millionaire to receive a $100,000 tax cut."
Durbin's GOP counterpart in the Senate is Jon Kyl of Arizona, who accused Democrats of "pitting Americans against each other."
"We don't want to punish anyone for being successful — that class warfare went out of style when the Cold War ended," Kyl said. "I don't think it has a part in our debates."
And as those debates continue, it's still not clear when an actual bill extending the Bush-era tax cuts would be taken up by the Senate.