House Democrats may tweak tax deal

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

As the Senate prepared Tuesday to push through a sweeping tax package negotiated by the White House and congressional Republicans, House leaders were looking to amend the measure to satisfy the concerns of angry liberals without unraveling the deal altogether.

Senate leaders, meanwhile, postponed a vote on the $858 billion package until Wednesday afternoon. Despite the delay, the measure was expected to sail through the Senate with even stronger support than it received in a test vote this week, when 83 senators voted to advance the package in the strongest bipartisan vote on a major initiative since President Obama took office.

The measure would extend for two years an array of tax breaks enacted during the George W. Bush administration that are set to expire Dec. 31, including benefits championed by Republicans for the wealthiest households. In return, Obama secured another year of emergency jobless benefits and fresh incentives to boost the economy, including a two-percentage-point reduction in the payroll tax for all workers in 2011.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he was leaning toward voting for the package after voting against it Monday "to send a message to the House that there are allies here." Brown, one of the Senate's most liberal members who is up for reelection in 2012, said he changed his mind after speaking with his minister and reading letters from constituents who are struggling to find jobs in his hard-hit home state.

Stiffer estate provision

The strong Senate vote also appeared to have weakened resolve among House Democrats to block the measure when it comes to the floor this week. After meeting for two hours with rank-and-file lawmakers late Tuesday, senior Democrats said the House is likely to stage votes to change the terms of a revived estate tax that many Democrats view as overly generous to the wealthy.

Outraged by the agreement to exempt individual estates worth as much as $5 million from taxation, senior Democrats said they would press to lower the threshold to $3.5 million. They also want to impose a stiffer tax on larger estates, by setting the rate at 45 percent rather than the 35 percent demanded by Republicans and agreed to by Obama.

Those are the same terms that were in effect in 2009. The estate tax expired for the 2010 tax year but is set to spring back to life next month with much tougher provisions. House Democrats said their alternative would hit only about 6,600 of the nation's wealthiest households while raising an additional $26 billion over the next two years compared with the Obama-GOP compromise - money that could be used to reduce the soaring national debt.

"There's a real debate here between Republican proponents of tax cuts for the very richest Americans and our argument that that's fiscally irresponsible and unfair to future generations," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who was leading an effort to strip the tax package of what he called "indiscriminate giveaways" for the wealthy.

Refund-check proposal

House leaders were also considering a proposal by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) to convert the payroll tax holiday into a one-time refund check that would be issued to every American worker early next year. Sherman said the alternative was designed not only to get cash more quickly into the hands of consumers, but also to protect Social Security. Some Democrats fear that Republicans would try to extend the one-year payroll tax holiday, permanently reducing the flow of funds to Social Security at a time when the GOP and deficit hawks in both parties are urging lawmakers to cut benefits for future retirees.

If any amendments were adopted in the House, the tax package would have to go back to the Senate for further action. But Sherman said House leaders made clear that they are "looking for changes that cause the bill not be dead on arrival in the Senate" - an outcome that would cause tax rates to rise next month for virtually every American worker.

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