U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, took an unusual action last week when he voted in favor of a Republican-backed bill to extend the full package of so-called Bush tax cuts, even though he has consistently said tax cuts for the wealthy should expire.
Owens was among just 19 Democratic House members that voted in favor of the bill, while only one Republican House member voted against it.
Owens said Thursday in a telephone interview the Wednesday vote wasn’t a change in course.
He voted earlier that day in favor of a Democratic-backed motion to send the bill back to committee with an amendment to let tax cuts expire in January for individuals earning $1 million or more.
When the motion failed, he voted in favor of the overall bill because it was the only way to show support for extending middle-class tax cuts and extending current estate tax policy, Owens said.
Owens said his vote should be viewed in the context of a sequence of three votes on tax policy that day.
“When you look at the composite of all of these votes, my goal was always the same,” he said.
In the third vote Wednesday, Owens voted against a Democratic-backed bill that would have extended tax breaks only for those earning less than $250,000.
Owens said he voted against it because it would have increased the estate tax rate from 35 percent to 45 percent, and would have reduced the exemption from $10 million per couple to $7 million.
Owens said the estate tax is a significant issue for farmers and small-business owners in the district.
Owens is running for re-election against Republican Matt Doheny, who has called for a complete repeal of the estate tax, and Green Party candidate Donald Hassig.
Doheny, at a press conference in Lake George on Friday, said Owens may have made “the right vote” on the Republican bill, but the congressman’s position on tax extensions has been inconsistent.
“He said he was going to vote against the extension, and then he comes out and votes in favor of it. So who knows where he really stands,” said Doheny, an investment fund manager from Watertown.
Owens said he has consistently said tax cuts should be extended for people earning less than $250,000.
He said he is looking to gauge whether it is possible to reach compromise on some cut-off point, whether the level be $250,000 or $500,000 or $1 million.
State Republican Chairman Edward Cox, who joined Doheny at the Friday press conference in Lake George, suggested Owens had insincere motives for voting in favor of the Republican-backed tax extension bill.
“This is what liberal Democrats do,” Cox said. “When they’re going before the voters in a place like the North Country, suddenly they start voting like Republicans and start getting fiscally conservative, fiscally responsive. But once they’re elected, they start turning away.”
Owens said the vote fit with his reputation as a centrist.
“Virtually all of the groups that rate members of Congress indicate that I’m one of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus,” he said. “That’s been virtually consistent since I’ve been in Congress. So I think those folks are simply ignoring the facts.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued two separate press releases last week criticizing Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, for voting in favor of the same bill that Owens voted in favor of.
Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for the DCCC, said the circumstances between Owens and Gibson are different.
Owens voted in favor of the motion to amend the bill so that tax cuts expire for people earning above $1 million, while Gibson voted against the motion, he said.
Local Democrats said they won’t criticize Owens for voting in favor of the Republican-backed tax extension bill at this point.
Larry Dudley, coordinator of the Greater Glens Falls Democracy of America chapter, a Democratic political advocacy group, said his group wants to hear Owens explain his reasoning in person before they take a position.
Dudley said the legislation was merely symbolic anyway, because it does not have enough support to pass the Senate, and President Obama has said he would veto it.