Senate Republicans on Monday rejected the White House-backed "Buffett Rule" aimed at hiking tax rates on millionaires, a move both sides will use as campaign benchmarks ahead of the November election.
President Obama had spent much of the past week pushing the "Paying a Fair Share Act," arguing its mandate of a minimum tax rate of 30% for people making more than $1 million would help bring a level of fairness to the tax code as working-class Americans struggle with economic hardship.
Republicans have dismissed it as a stunt aimed at dividing Americans rather than addressing broader economic issues.
But the vote was a potentially dangerous election-year gamble for Republicans, as a new poll suggests the Buffett Rule is popular with the public.
Some 72% of Americans say they support it, according to a CNN survey of 1,015 Americans.
Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a sponsor of the bill, took to the Senate floor to make a last-ditch effort to sway Republicans, saying the Buffett rule would "end the absurd inequity in our tax code."
But as expected, the largely symbolic vote that came on the eve of tax day for Americans did not go White House's way. The 51-45 vote left Democrats nine votes short of the 60 they needed to advance the bill.
A 'Political Gimmick'
Democrats, who expect to revisit the measure later in the year, say it would save at least $47 billion over 10 years.
Republicans counter that it does nothing to create jobs or reduce the country's runaway debt.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the bill as a "political gimmick that even Democrats admit won't solve our larger problems."
He also said Americans "want their president to solve problems, not point fingers," and to work on finding solutions "instead of running around lecturing everybody on fairness."
Democrats were quick to highlight the disparities between America's wealthiest and the middle class, who Obama has described as bearing an outsized burden in hard economic times.
Blocking the Buffett rule served to "protect tax breaks for the wealthiest few Americans at the expense of the middle class," Obama said in a statement after the vote.
"One of the fundamental challenges of our time is building an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules," he said.
"I will continue to push Congress to take steps to not only restore economic security for the middle class and those trying to reach the middle class, but also to create an economy that's built to last."
On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid bluntly accused millionaires and billionaires of "not sharing the pain or the sacrifices," as he framed the vote as a stark choice.
"Americans can build a world-class education system that will allow our children and grandchildren to compete in the industries of tomorrow. And we can ensure seniors who worked hard all their lives look forward to a secure retirement and quality, affordable health care," Reid said.
"Or we can keep protecting tax breaks for the richest of the rich. We can't do both."
The Buffett Rule is named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who last year said that at 17%, he pays a lower tax rate than his own secretary.
Buffett's benefit is a consequence of tax loopholes imposed by former President George W. Bush under which investment revenues are taxed at a lower rate than wages.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012