Making the Buffett Rule Law

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has received plenty of ink - including a New York Times editorial page endorsement - for his "Buffett Rule" bill, named after the mega-rich investor Warren Buffett.

Buffett has argued that wealthy investors like him, who face a 15-percent tax under current law, should pay at the same rate as middle-class folk - roughly 30 percent. And Whitehouse's bill would make just that change.

The Republican Party has cried "class warfare," of course. And it's amost impossible to imagine GOP legislators approving such a thing in the near term. So is the bill a pure political play? I put the question to Whitehouse in a telephone interview today.

The senator insisted he is serious about passing the measure and talked of a two-prong strategy. Step one: ginning up public support to force a votes (or votes) on the bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate. "This is the kind of thing where, if nobody is pushing, then the special interests will have their way," he says. "But if senators are hearing from people across the country about this and if they're being forced to vote on it - potentially over and over - we've seen that under that kind of pressure, the will of the American public actually can be achieved."

Of course, if the bill somehow got out of the Senate, it would go nowhere in the GOP-controlled House. At least not anytime in the coming months.

Here's where the second prong of Whitehouse's strategy comes into play: using the pressure of the expiring Bush tax cuts to force the GOP's hand. "Towards the end of the year, we're going to probably do a fairly significant piece of tax legislation, because I believe the other side will become a lot more reasonable as the expiration of all the Bush tax cuts looms," he says. "And I'm going to be working very hard to make sure that this provision gets into that tax package."

Of course, any action before the election seems highly unlikely - both Democrats and Republicans will want to use questions of taxes and fairness in the run-up to the November vote. And the outcome of the election - the message the voters send - could figure in the fate of the Buffett Rule bill, even if the new Congress will not be seated until 2013.

But absent a sweeping Republican win - and this observer, at least, predicts more in the way of divided government - Whitehouse may have a hand to play here.



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