STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In between campaign stops, members of Congress face a big divisive question. It's what to do with the Bush-era tax cuts that expire at the end of this year. As we've reported in recent days, Democrats are split. Now it turns out the issue is dividing Republicans too.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: Until a couple of days ago, it seemed congressional Republicans were on the same page about extending all the Bush-era tax cuts. But a crack in that united front appeared Sunday, when House Minority Leader John Boehner told CBS's "Face the Nation" he could see voting for what most Democrats want, which is to extend those cuts only for household income under a quarter million dollars.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I'll vote for them.
WELNA: Yesterday the number two 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 declared that, quote, "raising taxes in this environment is a nonstarter for me."
Former GOP Congressman Vin Weber thinks Boehner has actually chosen the smarter political position because, as Weber puts it, you don't want to be in the position of voting against a middle class tax cut.
Mr. VIN WEBER (Former Republican Congressman, Minnesota): Republicans need to quickly get their one voice together on this issue. But I think that Boehner understands the politics of this pretty well, and I wouldn't march away from him if I were the Republicans.
WELNA: But other leading Republicans are also insisting they won't give in to Democrats on the tax cuts. Iowa's Chuck Grassley is the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): I think the thing is that we've got to stick by what we've said. 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.
WELNA: Were you surprised that Boehner said what he did yesterday?
Mr. GRASSLEY: A little bit.
WELNA: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, for his part, introduced a measure Monday that would prevent all income tax rates from rising next year.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): The good news is, there's a growing chorus of Democrats, including at least five right here in the Senate, are coming around on this issue. They oppose the tax hikes the administration is proposing. As Senator Lieberman put it earlier yesterday, I don't think it makes sense to raise any federal taxes during the uncertain economy we are struggling through.
WELNA: That would be Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman. He caucuses with the Senate Democrats. Lieberman made it clear last 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.
Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): To me there's very broad agreement on the middle-class tax cuts, therefore we ought to get it done. And then we can argue about tax cuts for higher income people.
WELNA: 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 the tax cuts extended but he can't see voting for a measure that lets top tax rates rise.
Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): It'd be very hard for me to support that.
WELNA: Those in Congress who do support letting the top tax cuts expire are feeling emboldened by polls showing public opinion's on their side. Senator Bernie Sanders is an independent from Vermont.
Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): The rich are getting richer, everybody else is getting poorer. These guys do not need more tax breaks. It is a dumb idea.
WELNA: The rich won't get all their tax breaks extended under the Democrats' plan, but they will get some.
Number two Senate Democrat Dick Durbin compared his party's plan yesterday to what Republicans want.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): 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 Senator McConnell's plan, the centerpiece of the Republican campaign strategy for November, he wants the millionaire to receive a $100,000 tax cut.
WELNA: Durbin's GOP counterpart in the Senate is Jon Kyl of Arizona. He accused Democrats of, quote, "pitting Americans against each other."
Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): We don't want to punish anyone for being successful. That class warfare went out of style when the Cold War ended, and I don't think it has a part in our debates.
WELNA: 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.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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