House GOP leaders abruptly pulled a military benefits bill from the floor yesterday after fellow Republicans objected to a handful of parochial tax breaks the Ways and Means Committee had added.
The bill was originally designed to give several tax breaks to military personnel, including reservists called to active duty. House Democrats cried foul last week when committee Republicans inserted other tax provisions that would benefit a few U.S. companies and trade associations.
Republican House leaders had hoped to win passage of the bill yesterday, but abandoned the effort when several GOP members balked.
"This bill over the period of the past couple of days got heavier and heavier," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told reporters as he left the House chamber. "We always want to make sure our members feel comfortable with bills that come to the floor."
About two weeks ago, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) told Republican and Democratic members they could use the $482 million tax bill as a vehicle to add other tax provisions that had failed in previous efforts. Several Republicans responded with targeted tax breaks, including a repeal of the excise tax on fishing tackle boxes, a tax break for the weather-related sale of livestock, and elimination of taxes on foreigners who bet on U.S. horse races. Democrats extended the bill's benefits to Peace Corps volunteers.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) yesterday said Republicans bore the blame for temporarily blocking the bill's progress.
"It's a darn shame that we got a partisan dispute that sent a message to our men and women in the service overseas that we couldn't get our act together because they larded up this bill with controversial provisions," Hoyer said in an interview.
According to several lawmakers, rank-and-file House Republicans were concerned about both the added tax breaks, which totaled nearly $500 million, and the fact that Thomas capped the travel expense deduction that National Guard and Reserve members could take for traveling more than 100 miles from home. Thomas's bill said Guard and Reserve members could deduct as much as $500 for business-related travel, while the Senate version of the bill included no cap. The House version would result in more than $600 million in savings to the government.
But the main controversy centered on a handful of proposed tax breaks that had been languishing for years on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) added an amendment sought by racetrack owners and breeders that would eliminate a 30 percent tax that foreigners pay on winnings from gambling on horse races in the United States. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ensured that foreign bow and arrow producers would have to pay the same taxes as their domestic competitors.
Republican committee members accused Democrats of playing politics, noting that many of the provisions had been included in other bills and that all of them had been vetted by the panel's staff.
"Each one was fully justified and, in the view of the majority of the committee, represented an improvement in the tax code," said McCrery, who predicted his and other amendments would eventually be stripped from the bill. "The fact is [the bill's] not going through in its current form, and I attribute today's pulling of the bill to politics. . . . We lost this one, and the Democrats won."
While Democrats blamed the holdup on Republicans' desire to reward special interests, DeLay expressed confidence that staffers could resolve the matter quickly. "I want this bill as much as anybody," he said on the House floor.
DeLay told reporters it would be up to Thomas and his deputies to decide how to fashion a bill that could pass. "It's a Ways and Means Committee bill," he said. "I'm sure they'll work over the weekend to see how to bring it to the floor."
Sitting outside the House chamber as DeLay defended the GOP's handling of the bill, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) quipped that Republicans had gotten "religion" when it came to adding legislative ornaments to the bill.
"You can't have a Christmas tree during Lent," he said.