Reporting from Washington — Congressional Democrats searched for leverage Friday in their bitter debate with Republicans over extending George W. Bush-era tax cuts, lashing out against giving "tax breaks to millionaires" and preparing for a rare weekend session in the Senate on the issue.
But the increasingly aggressive Democratic posture may come too late in the protracted battle over the fate of tax cuts that are set to expire Dec. 31. The White House has indicated it would consider an agreement with Republicans to temporarily extend all tax breaks, even for households earning more than $250,000 annually, if the GOP agreed to concessions and withdrew its block on certain Democratic priorities.
Throughout the week, Democrats appeared to hold the weaker hand as emboldened Republicans demanded a permanent across-the-board extension of tax cuts, even for the 2% of households that have earnings over $250,000.
But after days of internal debate, and as liberal outside groups began stepping up advertising and outreach efforts nationwide, Democratic lawmakers returned Friday to a common-man narrative, trying to shake off the listlessness of their midterm election rout last month.
Their efforts came as the unemployment rate crept up to 9.8% and a presidential commission said dramatic action was needed to avoid a crisis of government debt. To contemplate $700 billion in tax breaks for wealthy people under such circumstances, Democrats said, should lead conservative activists who fueled the midterm election results to "take up pitchforks."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that, like Republican counterparts, he spoke with many angry voters this fall during his reelection campaign.
"Not a single one of them, from the 'tea party' or anywhere else, said, 'Give tax breaks to millionaires,' " Schumer said. "We believe this is really a seminal moment in our nation's history."
Outside Washington, the Democratic base has grown disenchanted and restless over the tax-cut debate. MoveOn.org, a hub of online liberal activism, distributed a video featuring voters pleading with President Obama to hold his ground against Republicans.
"What's happened to that bold progressive man we elected president?" an elderly woman asks.
Another liberal group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, ran a television ad using a clip of Obama on the 2008 presidential campaign trail promising to let the tax cuts for wealthier Americans expire.
Both groups will press their members to call lawmakers on Monday.
But in many ways, the Democratic awakening is not likely to be enough of a game-changer for a bargaining dynamic that was already well underway.
Despite Obama's campaign promise to roll back the Bush-era tax breaks on upper-income households to pay for investments in jobs and other domestic priorities, the White House appears to have little leverage in its talks with Republicans.
This uneven negotiation has congressional Democrats increasingly worried that the White House could forge a deal that would exclude Democratic legislative priorities in the final days of the lame-duck congressional session, such as immigration revisions and ending the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
As Democratic lawmakers charge ahead, they seem to move further from the president. The White House has all but promised concessions and has given only tepid support to the Democrats' hardball strategy. As if to underscore the distance between them, Obama took a surprise trip to Afghanistan, leaving Vice President Joe Biden to carry the message Friday.
The mix of efforts by the White House, Democratic lawmakers and independent groups only highlighted the party's internal hand-wringing over how best to fight back against Republicans. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is advocating a floor strategy that forces Republicans to continue taking one vote after another to defend their preference for tax cuts for the rich.
Such a scenario will become less likely as the Dec. 31 deadline nears, as it would fuel an already risky game of chicken with a recharged and brazen group of Republican leaders.
GOP leaders, in fact, may prefer a stalemate that lasts into the new year, when they will return with more members in the Senate and control of the House.
Democrats instead are intent on a swift resolution, one that would still allow time for the Senate to consider ratifying a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, an Obama priority, before adjourning for the year.
It has become increasingly apparent during the negotiations that any eventual deal is likely to be based on some type of temporary extension of the tax breaks for all income categories, perhaps for two years — which would bump up against the 2012 presidential election — or three.
A pact also may also depend on the fate of long-term unemployment benefits that expired this week, leaving 2 million jobless Americans without aid during the holidays.