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How Nancy Pelosi Could Win The Fight Over Bush Tax Cuts

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In a letter delivered to Pelosi on Tuesday, Boehner identified the tactic Pelosi might use. "Using the suspension process - which requires a two-third vote in the House to pass legislation instead of a simple majority vote - as the vehicle for a vote on legislation that would stop President Obama's tax hike on all tax-paying Americans would be an obvious attempt to circumvent the will of the House by denying Republican and many Democratic members their right to offer an alternative proposal," Boehner wrote.

Here's what he meant.

If Pelosi offered one bill to only extend the middle class cuts, Republicans could use procedural maneuvers to force a separate vote on extending tax cuts for the rich -- a vote Pelosi might well lose.

Likewise, if she brought two bills to the floor -- one to extend the middle-income cuts and, one to extend the cuts for the wealthy -- both might pass. That's an outcome she wants to avoid.

Fortunately for her, there's a way out. The House rules allow the Speaker to offer legislation under what's known as suspension of the rules. Under suspension, time for debate is limited and no procedural hijinks are allowed -- but a two-thirds majority of members on hand is required for passage. It's a process often used to fast-track non-controversial legislation, and occasionally used when the majority wants to avoid tough procedural votes forced by the minority. It was part of the reason a 9/11 rescuers health care bill failed two months ago, leading to this fiery speech by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY).

Pelosi could offer two bills under suspension -- one extending tax cuts to the first $250,000 of income, and one extending cuts to income above that level. The latter legislation would almost certainly fail to reach the two-thirds threshold required for passage. The question is: what about the former?

Theoretically, almost all Democrats and Republicans support extending tax cuts to the middle class. But Republicans have intimated that they'd try to block efforts to pass a bill that only extended middle-income cuts, in favor of a bill that extended tax cuts for the rich, too. Under suspension, though, legislation requires 290 votes, and there are only 255 Democrats. That means Republicans would cast the deciding votes -- either in favor of the Obama plan to extend tax cuts to middle-income people, or against it. In the most literal sense, Pelosi would be calling their bluff.

As during health care reform -- when Dems considered using "the Slaughter Solution" -- Republicans are threatening to raise hell if Democrats don't hold a straight vote, and that could serve as a distraction from the substantive issue at hand: whether Republicans would kill tax cuts for everyone, in order to secure tax cuts for the rich.

But it could also secure Democratic leaders and President Obama the policy they're aiming for.

About The Author

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Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com