WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under pressure to send Democrats home to campaign with the strongest possible closing argument, said Friday that she is considering calling a vote on extending middle-class tax cuts next week.
Democrats, however, are divided on whether forcing a recorded vote on the issue before congressional elections in November would be politically helpful as they fight to maintain control of Congress.
"We will retain the right to proceed as we choose," Pelosi told reporters. "We'll take it one day at a time."
The most sweeping tax cuts in a generation, enacted in 2001 and 2003, are due to expire in January. Republicans want to extend all the tax cuts. President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress want to extend them for individuals making less than $200,000 and married couples making less than $250,000.
If Congress does not act, taxpayers at every income level face significant tax increases.
Obama has been pushing for a vote by year's end to extend middle-class tax cuts. But House Democrats — much like their Senate counterparts — are divided. Republicans and a few Democrats want to extend the tax cuts for everyone, even the wealthiest Americans.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chose to postpone consideration of the tax cut extension until a lame duck session scheduled to convene Nov. 15.
House Democrats had hoped the Senate would act first, before the election, to narrow the question of which tax cuts to preserve. Sensing the impasse and wary of being branded tax hikers before Election Day, more than 30 rank-and-file House Democrats urged Pelosi to extend all tax cuts, at least temporarily.
The question for Democratic leaders is whether holding a tax cut debate and a vote, or joining the Senate in a bicameral punt would be least damaging to them before Election Day.
Some Democrats are wary of supporting Obama's plan to let taxes rise for the wealthiest Americans, fearing they would be accused of supporting a tax hike. Other Democrats believe they have a winning message of fiscal responsibility while making the rich pay more after years of relative prosperity.
Pelosi downplayed the political dilemma Friday.
"There isn't a person in our caucus that isn't for tax cuts for the middle class," Pelosi said. "It's not about the election. It's about the policy, and we're all very strong on that, and members, with a vote or without a vote, can go home and talk about their commitment to that."
House Republican Leader John Boehner has seized on the indecision, saying that not securing a tax cut extension before the election risks a tax hike in 2011.
"Congress should not go home without stopping the tax hike on American families and small businesses," Boehner said. "Doing so would wallop every taxpayer with a tax hike in a struggling economy — and that's simply irresponsible."
House Republicans have said they are confident that their tax proposal would win a majority of votes in the House, if Pelosi allows it to come up for a vote.
Time is running short for the House to act before it breaks for the election. It is only in session for two days next week, and Pelosi said her goal is to send lawmakers home by Thursday.
Regardless of when the House votes, Pelosi vowed to extend the middle-class tax cuts by the end of the year.