Proposals for a tough corporate minimum tax have sharply divided the Democratic House leadership, creating a set of bizzare alliances cutting across partisan and ideological lines.
The struggle has placed House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) in the same camp with President Reagan and the House Republican leadership.
In direct confrontation are House Majority Leader James C. Wright (D-Tex.); the liberal Democratic Study Group; Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and such conservative Democrats as Rep. Wes Watkins (Okla.) and Marvin Leath (Tex.).
The conflict involves the struggle to succeed O'Neill, who plans to retire as speaker after this term, the battle over comprehensive tax simplification and questions of favoritism toward the oil industry.
What makes this fight so complex is that there is no dispute over the drive to enact a broader, more effective minimum tax for corporations to replace the minimum tax now on the books. On that, there appears to be basic agreement.
Instead, the fundamental dispute is over the use of the revenues from a corporate minimum tax.
The faction that includes O'Neill, Rostenkowski, Reagan and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) would use such revenues to reduce individual rates and thereby facilitate passage this year of legislation to simplify the tax code.
Their opponents, Wright, the DSG, Gephardt and a number of oil-state conservatives, want the revenue -- anywhere from $8 billion to $22 billion -- to be used to reduce the fiscal 1986 deficit.
Rostenkowski contended yesterday that the revenues from a minimum tax are critically important to tax simplification and that use of the minimum tax simply to raise additional revenues would make the Democrats vulnerable to "tax and spend" charges by Reagan.
In a letter to his Democratic colleagues, Rostenkowski said, "No matter how we phrase it, a 'minimum tax' used to bolster the budget resolution is a tax increase. More than that, it's a tax increase . . . to protect special interests."
The Rostenkowski position places him in a collision course with Wright. Rostenkowski is considered a potential opponent for the House speakership after O'Neill retires.
A spokesman for the DSG, which is sponsoring an amendment for a corporate and individual minimum tax raising $8 billion next year, said the executive committee of the liberal organization "places a higher priority on deficit reduction than on tax reform."
A much more complex amendment to the budget resolution calling for a $12 billion tax hike in 1986 and a one-year delay in inflation increases for Social Security beneficiaries and other retirees, except for those below the federal poverty line, was outlined by Gephardt, Leath and four other House Democrats.
Gephardt, who is a proponent of tax simplification, contended that his amendment would not undermine tax reform and indicated that he is willing to see a 150 percent increase in business taxes as part of a deficit-reduction effort.
A third corporate minimum tax was introduced by Watkins although sources close to the House Rules Committee said it was brought to the panel by a Wright aide.
Rostenkowski and O'Neill aides have suggested that Wright is backing a corporate minimum tax as a way to avoid tax-simplification legislation, which could prove tougher on the oil industry in Texas.
A Wright aide yesterday denied that the majority leader's purpose is to protect the industry. Instead, the aide said, Wright wants new revenues to protect programs benefiting Social Security recipients and others receiving federal assistance.