The US Senate approved a Democratic plan Wednesday to extend expiring tax breaks for all but the wealthiest Americans, though the measure is unlikely to resolve the country's looming fiscal impasse.
Republicans want the Bush-era tax cuts extended for all, arguing that Congress should not raise taxes on anyone when the economy is as sluggish as it is now, but their measure to do just that failed and the chamber passed the Democratic bill instead.
By a 51-48 vote, lawmakers voted to extend the tax cuts for all American families making less than $250,000 per year. The bill would mean those making more than that figure would pay higher taxes in 2013.
The vote was a Washington political showdown of the first order, with Vice President Joe Biden appearing in the Senate in the event he was needed to break a tie, after two in the Democratic caucus -- Joe Lieberman and Jim Webb -- said they would vote no on the measure and two others were undecided.
"The American people got a ray of hope today that they are going to be protected," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after the vote.
He also pointed to polling which suggests a majority of Americans, including Republicans and the very rich, support letting the tax cuts expire for the very wealthy.
The bill, however, is likely to fail in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, ensuring that the debate and jockeying over taxes carries on into the campaign season, and perhaps even beyond November's general election.
"We all know this is not about the economy. We know this is about the election," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
"This proposal guarantees that taxes will go up on roughly a million of our most successful small businesses," he said, reflecting the Republican argument that the tax hikes would harm some of the country's top job creators at a time of persistently high unemployment.
President Barack Obama, who signed a two-year extension of all Bush-era tax cuts in late 2010 after a bitter struggle but said he would veto such a measure this year, said the pressure was now squarely on the Republican House leadership to approve what would be tax breaks for more than 100 million families.
"With the Senate's vote, the House Republicans are now the only people left in Washington holding hostage the middle-class tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans and nearly every small business owner," Obama said in a statement after the vote.
"It's time for House Republicans to drop their demand for another $1 trillion giveaway to the wealthiest Americans and give our families and small businesses the financial security and certainty that they need."
Other Democrats heaped the pressure directly on House Speaker John Boehner to show Americans that Republicans too want to help the middle class more than the very wealthy.
"There now is one man standing between over 100 million middle class families and their tax cuts... and that is John Boehner," Senator Patty Murray said.
"What choice does he have? He can either pass this bill, which delivers certainty to middle class taxpayers... or he can step on the gas, head towards that fiscal cliff and strap the American people... to the top of his car."
Democrats and Republicans alike are seeking to avoid blame for pushing the nation over the so-called fiscal cliff, a volatile amalgam of expiring tax breaks and automatic spending cuts that will kick in early next year if Congress fails to act.
The Congressional Budget Office has said failure to resolve the impasse could trigger a recession in 2013.