Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) said yesterday that he would include an oil import fee in the tax bill he is drafting if there is no other way to make the legislation bring in the same amount of revenue as the current tax system.
However, Packwood said he would seek President Reagan's support before including such a fee.
"If I can do it without an oil import fee I would prefer to," Packwood said in a telephone interview, adding that several new tax proposals his staff had presented him yesterday could eliminate the need for an oil fee. "But I need $100 billion to $130 billion in additional tax revenue over five years to do the things the president wants and the majority of the committee wants."
At a White House meeting with Reagan this week, the president was less enthusiastic about the idea of a tax on consumption as part of the tax-revision bill than he was about an oil fee, Packwood said.
"It wasn't kicked out of the ballpark as soon as I dropped it," Packwood said. He noted that the oil fee is appealing because it is a single revenue-raiser, whereas other measures he is considering are a combination of proposals. Packwood would not identify the other measures.
In private conversations, Packwood has said he believes he has a firm commitment from the administration to support him on an oil import fee. In the on-the-record interview yesterday, however, he portrayed the situation more as a question of whether he could persuade Reagan that it may take an oil import fee to change the House tax bill in a way that will satisfy the president and keep it revenue-neutral.
Of the tax options now under consideration to restore revenue to the nascent Senate bill, the oil import fee is considered the frontrunner.
Packwood said his draft bill already has eight votes. By the time the committee begins to write its legislation, probably in March, he expects to have 14 votes for the package, three more than he needs.
Packwood's comments on the oil import fee appeared to signal another step in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to gain a new revenue source in the tax-overhaul bill, despite general opposition to tax increases by Reagan. The White House originally opposed all such increases. Some administration aides then suggested privately that Reagan might accept an oil import fee. Now Packwood is suggesting the president may agree if all other avenues are explored first.
Along those lines, the Treasury Department issued a statement yesterday that read in full: "We continue to believe that a satisfactory bill can be developed without an alternative revenue source if the Finance Committee takes a serious look at revenue-raisers that were lost in putting together the House bill. We would like to have fully considered the revenue sources the House rejected."
Among those sources, however, is the politically unpalatable option of ending the deduction for all state and local taxes, which the House ignored entirely. The Treasury statement, unlike past administration comments, did not specifically reject new taxes. Officials agreed privately it appeared to signal a softening of administration opposition to any new taxes in the revision bill.
Reagan persuaded House Republicans to vote for the Democratic tax bill in part by promising he would veto it unless changes were made to expand the personal exemption to $2,000 for more taxpayers; make business investment write-offs more generous, and reduce the top tax rate to 35 percent (the House bill has a top rate of 38 percent; the current top rate is 50 percent).
Packwood and other Senate tax-writers have expressed frustration that the administration has been pushing strongly for the changes, but is opposing some of the ways the committee is considering to make up the revenue. Packwood said yesterday that 90 percent of the revenue he needs "are for things the president wants . . . . We are past the stage where we can do this bill with no new revenue."
Packwood said when Finance Committee members returned from their tax-overhaul "retreat" in West Virginia last weekend that he would not propose using new revenues to keep the tax bill from increasing the federal deficit unless Reagan publicly said he would support such a move.
However, there is considerable support on the Finance Committee for a fee on imported oil. Sens. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) are cosponsoring one bill to impose a variable import fee pegged to an oil price of $22 per barrel, and Bentsen is pushing another with Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) that would impose a $5 per-barrel fee that would phase out at a price between $25 and $30 per barrel.