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The Senate narrowly passed a Democratic plan to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthiest two percent of Americans, in a surprise vote that few thought would actually take place.

The measure passed by a narrow 51-48 margin; Vice President Joe Biden presided over the tally in case his vote was needed to break a tie.

While the Bush tax cuts would be extended for lower and middle income families under the Democratic plan, the wealthy would see a return to rates similar to what they paid under the Clinton administration. The New York Times reports:

Under the Senate-passed bill, income tax rates for couples’ earnings over $250,000 would rise from 33 percent to 36 percent. Tax rates on income over about $390,000 would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. The rate on most dividends and capital gains would rise from 15 percent to 20 percent for incomes over $250,000.

Most observers had assumed that Senate Republicans would filibuster the Democratic measure, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced this morning that he would allow a straight up-or-down vote in order to put Democrats on the record.

“The only way to force people to take a stand is to make sure that today’s votes truly count,” McConnell said. “By setting these votes at the 50-vote threshold, nobody on the other side can hide behind a procedural vote while leaving their views on the actual bill itself a mystery, a simple mystery to the people who sent them here.”

Before passing the Democratic-backed plan, the Senate voted down a Republican proposal to extend all of the Bush tax cuts — including those on the wealthy — by a 45-54 vote margin. Republicans Scott Brown and Susan Collins defected and voted with the Democrats on that measure.

Although Senate Democrats won today, their victory is largely symbolic. While their tax plan has gotten through the upper chamber, it is almost certain to be shot down in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Still, there are political benefits to their success; as Senator Chuck Schumer’s spokesperson tweeted, “Today, McConnell has set up the House GOP to take the fall on Jan 1 if middle-class tax cuts not extended .”

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