WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved a plan to preserve tax cuts for the middle class while letting them expire for the wealthy, a powerful if largely symbolic victory for Democrats who have been pushing to raise taxes on the rich for more than a decade.
The measure is dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House, where leaders are preparing to vote next week on their plan to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for households at every income level through 2013.
But Democratic lawmakers said the Senate's 51-48 vote is a political breakthrough that strengthens their election-year argument that Republicans are holding tax cuts for the middle class hostage in order to maintain breaks worth $160,000 a year to the average millionaire.
Vice President Joe Biden presided over the late-afternoon vote. His appearance highlighted the importance of the issue for President Barack Obama, who has made tax "fairness" a centerpiece of his reelection campaign against GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of playing politics with the nation's tax code.
Only two of 53 senators who caucus with Democrats voted against the measure. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said he opposes any extension of the tax cuts, preferring that lawmakers take up far-reaching tax reform this year. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., had the opposite complaint.
But Sen. Kay Hagen, D-N.C., flew back to Washington from a funeral to cast her vote to support the measure. And several Democrats in tight races voted yes despite Republican arguments.
On an earlier vote, the Senate rejected a GOP plan to extend all the Bush tax cuts, 45 to 54.
The votes capped a surprising day that began with Mr. McConnell announcing that he would waive procedural hurdles and permit the Senate to hold an up-or-down vote on the measure, in exchange for an agreement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to call a vote on the Republican bill, as well.
Mr. McConnell said his goal was to force vulnerable Democrats to support a plan to raise taxes less than four months before the Nov. 6 ballot.
Moreover, Mr. McConnell said, the tax bill cannot advance because it is a Senate-originated tax measure. The Constitution requires all tax measures to originate in the House.
The ideological stalemate between the House and Senate leaves the nation facing what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has called a "fiscal cliff" in January, when a payroll tax cut and other temporary tax breaks are set to expire, along with the Bush tax cuts. Factoring in automatic cuts set to hit the Pentagon and other federal agencies, the fiscal cliff threatens to siphon $600 billion out of the economy next year, potentially throwing the nation back into recession.