Last night, the Senate voted 60-39 to close debate on a Landrieu amendment to restore the $30 billion lending facility to the small business bill. This amendment was made necessary because earlier in the week, the leadership had dropped the lending facility due to staunch opposition from key swing votes.

The Senate is now on an unrelated bill, but we expect it to resume debate on the small business bill sometime next week, which will likely push House consideration of the bill into September. What’s the prognosis? Here’s the S-CORP Crystal Ball:

  • Progress on the bill had been slowed by two points of contention: opposition to the lending facility, and demands (mainly by Republicans) to offer amendments on the estate tax and other tax items. The 60 votes in support of the lending provisions should put an end to that debate. The Senate has worked its will and members will likely move on, at least until negotiations take place between the House and the Senate.
  • The next step will be a cloture vote on the Baucus Substitute. This is the tax portion of the bill that includes some very good provisions, including the bonus depreciation and built-in gains relief. There’s a good chance the first attempt to get cloture will fall short, with Republicans holding together in an effort to get votes on key amendments; they support the tax provisions, but want their amendments, too.
  • At that point, our crystal ball gets fuzzy. We could end up with an agreement for one or two key votes and then final passage. Or the Leader could continue to block any additional amendments and try one last time to get cloture.

With two weeks left in the session, the Senate has two “must pass” items: the Kagan nomination and the small business bill. Getting both done is doable, but it’s going to require a concerted effort. With all of the bad policies on the horizon for small businesses, a friendly package of tax provisions would be a welcome respite. Here’s hoping the Senate succeeds in moving this bill.

Future of Expiring Tax Cuts: Update

Lots of conflicting news this week on future of the expiring tax cuts:

  • “Democrats are considering a plan to delay tax hikes on the wealthy for two years because the economic recovery is slow and they fear getting crushed in November’s election.” The Hill, July 22nd.
  • “In a speech on the economy and jobs, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Friday reiterated his party’s call to extend the Bush middle-class tax cuts and deemed Republicans’ call to extend breaks for the wealthy a “mistake [that] would be putting ourselves even deeper into debt.”” The Hill, July 22nd.
  • “Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) is eyeing September for possible committee action on extending individual tax cuts that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year, according to Senate aides. Baucus held a meeting with Republicans and Democrats on his committee Thursday evening to begin discussing how to deal with the approaching expiration of the tax cuts. Baucus raised the possibility of a September committee vote, people present said. Aides cautioned that no conclusions about what to do or when to do it were reached at the meeting.” Dow Jones, July 21st.
  • “Sen. Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), a senior Senate Democrat with influence over tax and budget policy, said Wednesday that Congress shouldn’t allow taxes on the wealthy to rise until the economy is on a more sound footing. Conrad told Dow Jones Newswires in an interview outside the Senate chamber that Democrats should cancel plans to let the top individual income-tax rates and capital-gains rates rise for the wealthy at the end of this year. He said a tax increase might imperil an economy already weakened by the effects of persistent unemployment and turmoil in European debt markets.” Dow Jones, July 21st.

So, the future of tax policy is clear as mud. What are the possible outcomes for the expiring tax cuts?

  • Congress does nothing and all the tax cuts expire;
  • Congress adopts a temporary (one- or two-year) extension of the middle class tax relief; or
  • Congress adopts a temporary extension of all the tax relief.

It’s not intuitive, but we believe the second option — Congress extends the middle class tax cuts only — is the least likely outcome. It’s counterintuitive because that is the preferred policy of the leadership in Congress and the Obama Administration. It’s least likely because it will be hard for leadership, especially in the Senate, to cobble together the necessary votes. Republicans are likely to oppose en masse, and deficit hawk Democrats will object to the cost.

On the other hand, a one-year extension of all the tax cuts could carve out super majorities in both the House and the Senate, but that would require congressional leadership to move a bill over the objections of a significant portion of their conference. They might, but they haven’t been willing to do that to date.

Instead, faced with the no-win situation of dividing their base, leadership could choose to do nothing. With the legislative clock ticking, we see that as the most likely outcome. Congress does nothing, or makes a half hearted effort and falls short, and all the tax relief goes away.

Predicting is risky and we’ve been wrong many times. We hope we’re wrong this time too.