The House passed 268-157 Thursday a Republican-written bill that would provide $182 billion in tax breaks for married couples over the next decade.
“We need a tax code that doesn’t punish married couples,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. “They need to buy braces for the kids. They need to buy insurance for the car and the home. They don’t need the federal government picking their pocket.”
Republicans joined by a quarter of the House’s Democratic members voted uniformly in favor of the bill. The vote came after the House rejected on a nearly party-line vote a $90 billion Democratic alternative that was contingent upon meeting certain budget requirements.
Rep. Deborah Pryce, Ohio Republican, said in an opening speech on the House floor that Democrats’ “sudden concern about balancing the budget and debt reduction, while very welcome, seems to be guided by an even stronger desire to deny the American people tax fairness and tax relief.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, Texas Republican, said President Clinton would only sign the Democratic tax plan “because it does nothing.”
The four-hour debate on the bill included charts, graphs and pictures of families. A Republican rally outside the Capitol featured heart-shaped chocolates, a flower-covered bridal arch and a red velvet platform.
The House-passed bill would help married couples by increasing the standard deduction, expanding the earned income-tax credit and broadening the lowest tax bracket.
Democrats, to shield themselves from charges of being anti-family, offered their own plan but said it would only take effect if the Social Security trust is made solvent through 2050, the Medicare trust fund is made solvent through 2030, and the public debt is on track to be paid down by 2013.
Mr. Archer opposed the strings attached to the Democrats’ plan.
“Everyone knows that the [federal budget] surplus is large enough to take care of Social Security and Medicare and leave room for tax relief,” Mr. Archer said.
Mr. Archer and fellow House Republicans have yet to draft their budget plans for 2001 and beyond, but rushed the tax-cut plan through committee and onto the House floor in an effort to get a vote before Valentine’s Day.
“Republican leaders could have gone to Hallmark if they wanted to do something for Valentine’s Day,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat. “But to use the tax code without hearings, negotiations or bipartisan discussions in order to make political points, that’s not right.”
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, called the Republican plan “the Freddy Krueger” of tax policy, referring to the oft-resurrected character in the movie “Nightmare on Elm Street.” “It died in August, and it’s back again in February,” he said.
The White House has signaled its objections to the Republican plan, but has never committed to a veto. Mr. Clinton’s advisers say instead they would “not recommend that [the president] sign it.”
Both Republicans and Democrats predict that political pressure on the other party will force a compromise in the Senate.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, said it’s not reasonable to expect the measure to speed through the Senate, but said “if the president is serious about marriage penalty relief” then a bill will be enacted this year.
If legislation is enacted this year, it will be the eighth change in 52 years to the tax treatment of marriage in an ongoing tug of war between singles, married couples and married couples with two incomes.
Because higher marginal tax rates kick in faster for married couples and because the standard deduction for a married couple is about four-fifths of the standard deduction an unmarried couple could claim, families with two working spouses typically suffer a marriage penalty.
Conversely, a family in which one spouse earns substantially more than another typically receives a marriage bonus, because income the high-wage earner would otherwise pay at higher marginal rates can effectively be “sheltered” in the lower marginal rates the low-income earner pays.
While both plans were billed as marriage penalty relief, both would shower their benefits on all families, regardless of whether they suffered a tax penalty.
Identical provisions would increase the standard deduction for married couples to twice that for a single taxpayer. Both plans would also increase the number of families eligible for the earned income-tax credit, though over the long run the Democratic provision is 25 percent more generous.
One bone of contention, a Republican provision, would lower tax rates for married couples but would not begin to take effect until 2003 and would not take full effect until 2008.
Another major difference between the two plans is a Democrat-proposed adjustment to the Alternative Minimum Tax, without which many families will not be able to benefit from the other tax cuts proposed.
Members from both sides angrily excoriated the other party’s shortcomings, but often over proposals they shared.
“There is no help for stay-at-home moms or dads,” Mr. Archer said of the Democratic plan, implying that it would only help couples with two incomes.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat, criticized Republicans for giving half of the tax relief in their bill to families that don’t pay a marriage penalty.
The expansion of the earned income-tax credit and increase of the standard deduction contained in both plans would about equally benefit all families.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.