Senate Will Delay Action on Punitive Tax on Bonuses

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said Monday that 15 employees who received some of the largest bonuses from American International Group Inc. have agreed to return the more than $30 million worth of payments in full. Video by AP
By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jarred by a cool reception from the White House and fears of unintended consequences across the financial world, Senate leaders are likely to delay until late next month legislation to punitively tax bonuses at banks and investment firms that receive federal aid.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced last week that the Senate would move ahead with the legislation as soon as possible, and he attempted to bring the bill to the floor Thursday night. But he revised that timetable yesterday, saying that the chamber will spend this week debating a national-service bill before turning to a long-scheduled showdown over the budget for fiscal 2010. With just two weeks to go until Congress departs for a spring recess, action on the tax measure would be unlikely before late April.

Reid's shift came as senators in both parties voiced increasing skepticism about the tax approach taken by the House, echoing President Obama's admonition Sunday night on CBS News's "60 Minutes" against using the tax code "to punish people."

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who introduced a Senate version of the bill Thursday, said yesterday that it is "unclear at this point" when the measure will be considered. He initially hoped to pass his legislation in a matter of days but said White House officials and other senators were offering "a lot of ideas" for modifying his proposal. But he added that no consensus has emerged on the specifics of the bill, as opposed to the unified outrage over the bonuses.

"Everybody knows you've got to address the outrage -- that's a no-brainer," Baucus told reporters.

Slow-walking the legislation would allow more time for leaders of American International Group, the troubled insurance giant at the center of the controversy, to attempt to recoup the targeted bonuses voluntarily. New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said yesterday that 18 of the 25 AIG Financial Products employees who received the biggest retention payments had agreed to return them, amounting to more than $50 million. [Story, D1.]

The delay also would give lawmakers room to consider more measured restraints on executive pay.

The AIG bonuses stirred an unusually potent bipartisan furor on Capitol Hill from lawmakers still troubled by the scope of the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program approved in October, and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke are slated to testify on the matter today before the House Financial Services Committee. On Thursday, five days after the AIG payments were disclosed, the House voted 328 to 93 to impose a 90 percent tax on the $165 million in bonuses distributed this month to employees of the firm's derivatives division, where high-risk trades led AIG to the verge of collapse and helped trigger the global financial crisis.

But the House bill would also apply to thousands of workers at major institutions such as Citigroup and Bank of America that have received more than $5 billion in TARP funding. The Senate version of the legislation, released shortly after the House vote, is even more broad, applying to firms that received less aid.

As the scope of the bills sank in over the weekend, industry leaders warned that some firms might reject government funding in an effort to free themselves from federally imposed compensation restraints, potentially jeopardizing economic recovery plans.

Obama's response to the House vote was decidedly neutral. Yesterday, on the eve of the president's prime-time news conference focusing on his administration's attempts to stabilize the economy in partnership with the nation's top financial firms, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs expressed the administration's concerns about the bill's potentially damaging downsides.

"We cannot and should not reward failure with bonuses and the message that would send," he said. But he added that administration officials "also want to make sure you don't do harm to the financial system."

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