Can Liberals Stop the Tax Deal?

If President Obama's tax-cut deal goes through, liberals will have failed to get their way over the White House in yet another political plot point, and the administration will have, yet again, passed a major bill over the objections of the left-most quarter of its activist base.

Liberals have attacked the White House regularly over the past year and a half or so, and they're now railing against a deal that looks as if it's destined to reach the president's desk in a form vaguely similar to what Obama laid out a week ago.

Progressives have voiced discontent, since his election, over Obama's plans for handling detainees, his failure to close the prison at Guantanamo, his Afghanistan surge, and Congress's failure to end the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. The tax-cut deal has become the next point of contention in this storyline.

So far, clashes with the Left haven't cost Obama all that much, and liberal activists have failed to effectively cow the White House on any of these issues.

At the crescendo of Obama vs. Liberals conflict, the House Progressive Caucus promised to block health care reform--President Obama's signature policy initiative--if it didn't include a public health-insurance option, the prized, single-payer alternative that the Left had championed throughout health care's long debate.

In the end, after weeks of pledged blockade, House liberals caved.

As the tax-cuts make their way to the House, attention turns again to House Democrats. Will this fight be any different? Will liberals cave to presidential pressure? If they go along with this deal, will they retain any credibility?

This time around, liberals may be irrelevant, even if they take a stand.

Republicans control 179 votes in the House. If 20 Republicans vote against a tax-cut deal, for instance, it can pas with only 58 Democratic votes (the exact size of the Blue Dog Coalition)--as long as it carries the support from Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will have to bring it to the floor.

That's not a realistic scenario, per se, since Pelosi wouldn't present a bill that only 58 of her caucus members support, but the point is this: With Republican votes brought into the mix for the first time in a major policy debate, House liberals find their power greatly diminished.

The 83-member House Progressive Caucus may not be able to stop an initiative supported by the 58-member Blue Dog Coalition, even if it holds together and votes en masse against a tax-cut compromise.

So, as it makes this last stand against an Obama initiative before Republicans take over the House, liberal members find themselves at a disadvantage.

No one knows exactly what will happen to the tax deal right now. House Democrats are seeking changes to the Estate-Tax provision, attempting to raise the maximum rate of taxation and lower the exclusion to 2009 levels, the last form in which the Estate Tax existed before expiring (there's no Estate Tax in 2010).

But the Senate remains poised to reject this, as Republican Sen. John Kyl (who coincidentally has been holding up the New START arms-reduction treaty) strongly favors the version that's been endorsed by a majority of senators. In other words, House Democrats leaders may have to change something else, and it's unclear whether the final changes to the bill will be enough to satisfy the liberal wing.

Whatever happens to the bill, as long as the high-end Bush tax cuts are extended, liberal activists will never be satisfied.

And liberal House members, at a disadvantage numbers-wise, may well vote against it in the end, knowing that it will pass despite their real unwillingness to accept it.