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On taxes, Owens crosses party lines, then crosses back, and then crosses again

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Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, voted Wednesday night to increase taxes on millionaires, then voted to keep their taxes low.

What gives?

The seemingly contradictory votes reflect the tangled web of so-called “messaging bills” in Washington that require representatives to take a stand on many issues, and Mr. Owens’s efforts to take as moderate a stance as possible. His Republican opponent and a super PAC that opposes his re-election, meanwhile, called his votes shallow political posturing.

“I believe we must keep taxes low for middle class families and small businesses in our community while not increasing the national debt by hundreds of billions of dollars with tax breaks for millionaires,” Mr. Owens said in a news release after his vote on Wednesday.

The votes came up because the tax cuts instituted in the early 2000s under President Bush are set to expire at the end of the year. The broad-based tax cuts lowered rates for wealthy individuals and middle-income earners alike.

The parties in Washington are now debating whether to extend those cuts, and for whom to extend them.

In Mr. Owens’s perfect world, federal income taxes on those who earn more than $500,000 annually would rise, and the estate tax — which hits people who pass on estates of more than $5 million at 35 percent — would be left alone.

Washington isn’t a perfect world, of course. Mr. Owens had to choose between bills that pulled him in a few different directions. Three major votes came up Wednesday night.

The first was a Democratic amendment that would raise taxes on those who make more than $250,000 annually and impose estate taxes on people with estates worth more than $3.5 million.

Mr. Owens voted “no” on this amendment, spokesman Sean R. Magers said. The income-tax level wasn’t the problem; it was the estate tax exemption, which Mr. Owens believes should stay at the $5 million level. If nothing is done, the level drops to $1 million. The amendment failed.

The second was a Democratic amendment that would hike income taxes on those who make more than $1 million annually, without touching the estate tax level.

Mr. Owens voted “yes” on this amendment. The amendment failed.

The third was the full Republican bill, which extended all of the Bush-era tax cuts regardless of income levels, including the wealthy.

While Mr. Owens thinks taxes should be hiked on the wealthy, and would support tax hikes on people who make more than $250,000 annually, he took a pragmatic approach on this one, Mr. Magers said. With the choice of extending the tax breaks for everybody, including the wealthy, and extending the tax breaks for nobody, including the middle class, Mr. Owens took the former.

“Bill’s not going to cut off the nose to spite the face,” Mr. Magers said.

That bill passed with only a handful of Democratic votes, and now it goes to the Senate, where its fate is dubious at best.

Matthew A. Doheny, Mr. Owens’s Republican opponent on Nov. 6, wasn’t buying Mr. Owens’s tax-cutting, moderate bona fides.

“Savvy people see this vote for what it is: A nakedly political maneuver done in a desperate attempt to win re-election,” spokesman Jude R. Seymour said in a news release. “Bill Owens can’t be trusted to say what he’ll do, and do what he says. And that’s why, this November, he’ll be replaced.”

Mr. Doheny favors extending the Bush tax cuts for all income levels and also favors eliminating the estate tax in its entirety.

And, illustrating the national attention the race will attract, a super political action committee — which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to defeat political candidates — hit Mr. Owens in a news release on Thursday.

Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, said that Mr. Owens “may have just shredded the last of his credibility.”

The news release was the super PAC overture in the 21st Congressional District.

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