Tax Deal Politics: Democrats vs. Democrats vs. Obama

The tax deal has made for quite a mash-up of political factions, and when it passed the House at midnight on Thursday night/Friday morning, it was supported by a coalition more hodgepodgish and randomly agglomerated than almost any voting coalition in the last four years.

Since Democrats took over Congress in 2007, strict partisanship has ruled the voting margins on most major pieces of legislation. Under President Bush, Democrats banded together for votes on war-funding and children's health care. Under Obama, Republicans have marched in lockstep against almost all of his initiatives.

But Thursday night was different, as nearly half the House Democratic caucus joined with Republicans to pass President Obama's deal.

Interestingly, Democratic leaders opposed the bill on final passage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not vote (as is common), but the deal was opposed by Majority Whip James Clyburn, Assistant to the Speaker and incoming Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, Caucus Chairman John Larson, and Caucus Vice-Chairman Xavier Becerra. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's moderate #2, was the only Democratic leader to vote for the bill.

That's extremely rare in Congress these days, where, in the current partisan culture, Democratic leaders typically unite with their caucus (minus a few disaffected Blue Dog conservatives) to pass legislation on party-line votes.

Thursday night's vote also marked the first time since President Obama took office that Democratic leaders in the House united, for the most part, to oppose one of his initiatives.

Democratic leaders sought to amend Obama's deal with higher estate tax rates and lower exclusions, but a modified deal failed at 11:40 p.m. as 60 Democrats voted against it. Regardless, the estate tax modification would have complicated things for Obama's deal, as the Senate may not have passed it.

Democratic leadership brought the estate tax provision to the floor, one leadership aide said, thinking that its odds were "not great" but that it was worth it to force a vote and "see what happens," given how many Democrats were upset by the estate tax levels proposed by Obama.

"I salute President Obama for getting in the bill what is in there.  I am sorry that the price that has to be paid by our children and our grandchildren to the Chinese government to pay for the increase in the deficit that the Republicans insisted upon," Pelosi said on the floor, urging members to vote for the estate tax change.

Once the estate tax amendment failed, the Democratic caucus was split, and the final bill passed with 139 Democrats joining 138 Republicans to vote "yes." There were 112 Democrats and 30 Republicans voted "no."

After the vote, Clyburn said in a written statement that "This measure does not create a single job or stimulate the economy in any way," reiterating the displeasure many Democrats felt at this deal.

On the Democratic side, Blue Dogs joined with rank-and-file moderates to vote "yes," while Progressive Caucus members and the left half of the party voted "no."

The bill was supported by Republican leaders: Minority Leader John Boehner, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, incoming Conference Chair Jeb Hensarling, and National Republican Congressional Committee Recruitment Chairman Kevin McCarthy all voted in favor of it.

A mild Tea Party vs. rank-and-file dynamic emerged, as Rep. Michelle Bachmann and current conference chair Mike Pence joined with notable fiscal hawk Jeff Flake to oppose it.

For the first time in four years of Democratic rule in Washington, a truly odd coalition rose up to pass a major piece of legislation. Obama and moderate Democrats joined with nearly all House Republicans to pass this bill over the objections of liberal Democrats, Democratic leaders, and conservative Republicans.

During health care and cap-and-trade votes, a handful of conservative Democrats defied party leaders and House liberals, but at no major plot point has the Democratic vote been so evenly split.

Compromise and triangulation, it seems, make for an unpredictable grab bag of political alliances.