Cerabino: Marco Rubio’s spine to be tested in new tax bill

Uh, oh. Marco Rubio’s talking about his parents again.

Florida’s junior U.S. Senator usually invokes his father the bartender, and his mother the maid, when he’s running for office and delivering a stem-winder on the American Dream.

Rubio’s parents came to the United States in pre-Castro Cuba with little skills, but through hard work, they earned a living, and raised children, one of whom is a U.S. Senator and potential future president.

Rubio’s actual lawmaking sometimes runs in conflict with his heartwarming origin story. For example, he cravenly fell in line with his party’s call for “merit-based immigration,” which would have surely deemed Rubio’s fourth-grade-educated father unworthy for entry.

But I’m hoping that Rubio’s new references to his parents will turn into real action, and not just some pretty words that ultimately take a back seat to his own political ambition.

Last week, Rubio gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate in support of a more generous child tax credit in the massive tax bill that his Republican colleagues in the House were writing. He said it was imperative that the mix of big tax cuts didn’t leave out the families that might not make enough to pay federal income tax, but pay plenty in payroll taxes.

“Let’s just take a family like the one I grew up in: a bartender and maid,” he said.

Uh, oh. Here we go again.

“The median income of the bartender and a maid is about $42,000, $43,000 a year,” Rubio said.

“They have three children. Without anything in the child tax credit — we just leave it like it is and do the framework — they are going to pay $1,276 more in taxes,” Rubio said. “Can you imagine a tax reform plan that raises taxes on a bartender and a maid, with three children, making $42,000, $43,000 a year, and it raises their taxes by almost $1,300 a year?”

Rubio was making a pitch for something he’s been talking about for a couple of years. That the real way to give more buying power to the vast majority of American families in the middle and lower classes is to reduce their tax rate through child tax credits.

The Republican plan being worked on at the time of Rubio’s speech tentatively called for raising the $1,000 child tax credit by an additional $500. But Rubio was arguing, using his bartender and maid example, that this was just window dressing.

“So let’s just do the symbolic thing, raise it $500 but make it nonrefundable,” he said. “They will get a tax cut of about the same — $233. You might as well keep it because they’re not going to make a difference.”

The word “refundable” is significant here, and something his party hadn’t embraced. Nearly half of all taxpayers pay no federal income tax or very little federal income tax.

But if they work, they do pay significant payroll taxes for Social Security, Medicare and unemployment benefits. And even for those who do pay federal income tax, payroll taxes make up the majority of taxes paid by all but the top 10 percent of wage earners.

So Rubio’s middle-class tax reform idea is to give a significant boost to the child-tax credit — he argued two years ago for raising it to $2,500, but has knocked it back to $2,000 now — and making it refundable against not just the federal income taxes paid, but more significantly, the payroll taxes paid.

If it’s not refundable against payroll taxes, giving a federal income tax credit alone is useless to the bottom 47 percent of earners.

“For people that work and get a paycheck every week or every two weeks, when they get that paycheck it shows that money came out of their paycheck,” Rubio argued last week. “It doesn’t matter if that money went into income or payroll tax, that’s the money they earned that you took away using the power of government.

“They are paying taxes, whether they are paying income tax or payroll tax, they are paying taxes. If you want to help people who are working but don’t make enough, then the only way — and they are trying to raise a family — the child tax credit is the best way to do it,” Rubio said.

So what happened? When Republicans in the House unveiled their tax bill two days after Rubio’s speech, it had the symbolic, but ineffective, increase in the child tax credit to $1,600, and it was not refundable through payroll taxes, thereby making it useless to his bartender-maid example family.

Now what, Marco?

“We appreciate the hard work and countless hours our colleagues in the House have put into crafting this legislation,” Rubio’s office said in a prepared statement after his child-tax credit push was ignored.

Then he gently mentioned that he hadn’t given up on it yet.

“We wish the House draft had done more on this front—preferably doubling the credit to $2,000 per child and expanding its applicability to payroll taxes. We look forward to working with our colleagues to make sure working families are moved to the front of the line in the Senate bill.”

I’m rooting for Rubio. I know somewhere in that ball of ambition is a backbone capable of stiffening. This could be the time.

Maybe there will be a day soon when Rubio will stand up on the floor of the Senate and not just talk, but provide a meaningful vote against a bill that provides a windfall in tax relief to the wealthiest estates in America while giving nothing to the sainted bartender-maid households that inhabit his speeches.

Maybe. I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it.

But it would be a show-don’t-tell moment for Rubio worth waiting for.

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