Vivian Berzinski yesterday accomplished something that a multitude of lobbyists and senior senators mostly have been unable to do -- she got the Senate to preserve a tax break.
After defeating all but a handful of attempts to add tax breaks to its tax-overhaul package the past weeks, the Senate yesterday agreed to restore a tax deduction for handicapped workers.
Berzinski, a tax lawyer by trade and a quadriplegic for the last 14 years, had been looking through the 1,376-page Senate tax-overhaul bill for provisions affecting her clients when she saw that the legislation would end a deduction she and thousands of other handicapped workers take for such expenses as the salaries of assistants and the costs of special equipment enabling them to do their jobs.
Berzinski, 31, fired off letters to all 20 senators on the Finance Committee pointing out the damage she thought the change would cause.
After losing use of her arms and legs in an auto accident near Laurel at the age of 17, Berzinski went on to graduate from high school, the University of Maryland and Georgetown University Law Center, and then work for five years at Arnold & Porter.
The loss of the deduction would make it harder for her and others with similar handicaps to continue working, she wrote to Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). The salary of her assistant, Sean Kilroy, plus other costs, comes to about $20,000 per year. Her tax bill would rise by about $5,400 if the legislation became law.
"That's a lot of tax on money I don't even see," Berzinski said in an interview in her office yesterday. "It seems wrong to me to tax people who are trying really hard."
Dole, long interested in issues involving disabled persons, read her letter on the floor of the Senate yesterday, suggested the Finance Committee could not have meant its provision to apply to handicapped workers and proposed a change in the bill to exempt them. In a few seconds, it was approved, without objection.
Restoring that deduction was one of a series of actions the Senate took yesterday as it gnawed at its backlog of minor amendments to the sweeping bill, working out deals on some, rejecting others and accepting many.
The most controversial vote came over a proposal by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) to remove a provision granting amnesty from criminal prosecution to tax evaders who voluntarily come forward and pay what they owed. Bumpers contended the provision would keep the government from using tax-evasion charges to prosecute known criminals.
"This is an entitlement program for criminals," Bumpers shouted during an angry floor debate.
The chief proponent of the provision, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), responded that he was merely putting into law the Internal Revenue Service's current practice of being more lenient with those who voluntarily disclose what they owe and that the provision included exceptions for certain types of taxpayers.
But after several hours of debate and parliamentary maneuvering, Bumpers won. The Senate rejected a Baucus compromise, 43 to 40, and agreed to remove the amnesty provision by a voice vote.
Other provisions raised less ruckus. With little debate, for example, senators agreed with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that the income Alaskan Aleut Indians earn from butchering and selling federally owned reindeer is not taxable.
By the end of the day, some 43 amendments remained of the 65 that had been pending, including a proposal by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) to restore a tax benefit for federal retirees and retain the full deduction for Individual Retirement Accounts.
Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) said he expects little trouble in holding the final vote on the bill Tuesday afternoon, as scheduled.