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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Sanders makes pragmatic move on SALT

Sen. Bernie Sanders began advancing a budget proposal

Sen. Bernie Sanders began advancing a budget proposal last month that, even if it doesn't eliminate the SALT cap, could at least offer significant relief to those affected. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/MANDEL NGAN

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders in early May took a clear stance against reviving federal deductibility of state and local taxes, for which a $10,000 cap was imposed in 2017.

Interviewing Sanders (I-Vt.) for "Axios on HBO," reporter Jonathan Swan posed a question characterizing the proposed repeal of this SALT deductibility limit as a "tax break for rich people in blue states."

"Yup," Sanders agreed.

"You don’t support that?" Swan asked.

"Nope," Sanders said.

Pressed a bit further by Swan, Sanders said the notion of bringing back full deductibility "sends a terrible, terrible message … You’ve got to make it clear which side you are on, and you can’t be on the side of the wealthy and powerful."

But in an apparent agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — who knows this really rates as a middle-class tax issue on Long Island — Sanders began advancing a budget proposal last month that, even if it doesn’t eliminate the SALT cap, could at least offer significant relief to those affected.

In his Axios interview Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats’ razor-thin Senate majority, gave a hint of this unexpected show of flexibility when he said: "In fairness to Schumer and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, it is hard when you have tiny margins."

"Tiny margins" in the Senate refers to the fact that if the Democrats lose one of their 50 members they lose the majority, which rests with Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break party-line ties on votes. In the House, "tiny margins" means the current 220 Democrats to 211 Republicans.

At this moment in Joe Biden's presidency, process and ambition are shaped more by compromise within the Democratic Party than across party lines with Republicans, whose most powerful player is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

On that front, the draft budget resolution backed by Sanders that includes $120 billion for SALT changes appears linked to Schumer’s new full-throated support for expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision coverage.

Since Schumer & Co. cannot afford the alienation of a single senator, the leadership must not only broker support with Sanders and his allies, but with palpably conservative Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Behind the scenes, some Democrats reportedly see every member's veto power as useful for checking proposals that they may not wish to resist in public. Meanwhile, the old-school socialistic Sanders, who ran in Democratic presidential primaries but never enrolled in the party, said of this situation last month on MSNBC: "We need a hell of a lot more Democrats in the Senate than we have right now."

Questions about the definition and reach of progressivism and the left in the Democratic Party go well beyond Washington, of course. The discussion came up in the recent New York City mayoral race in which mainstream Democrat Eric Adams won the party's make-or-break nomination amid concern over rising crime.

SALT, like policing, raises pragmatic party questions. With Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, having signed the original curb on deductibility through 2025, Biden has not acted to repeal it. Pelosi has voiced support for easier SALT deductibility. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) is among the blue-staters agitating as well, along with regional Republicans.

But the high-wire act to watch on this issue now unfolds in the Senate, where the majority's margin of power cannot get any smaller for the foreseeable future.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.