- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

The House yesterday passed a bill that would give $50 billion in tax relief to married couples over the next five years, putting Congress one vote closer to a showdown with President Clinton.

"This all comes down to a matter of principle," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, Texas Republican, said yesterday. "The fact that married couples pay more in taxes just because they are married is simply immoral."

The 269-159 House vote nearly identical to a Feb. 10 vote to end the marriage penalty sends the bill to the Senate, where a slightly different version is pending.

The measure already has been approved by the House once, but the first bill remains stymied in the Senate. There, Democrats are using Senate rules to insist upon offering extraneous amendments but yesterday's version will be protected by budget rules from such parliamentary tactics.

"We did it once, but it was held up in the Senate," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. "It's something we've promised the American people, and we'll get it done."

The House vote also comes as Senate Republicans reached an agreement with Democrats to limit debate on a House-passed bill to abolish the federal "death tax" on inheritances.

Mr. Clinton has threatened to veto both measures, setting the stage for a tax-cut confrontation just before Republicans open their national convention July 31 in Philadelphia. Yesterday's House vote came well short of the 290 votes that would be needed to override a veto.

Republicans have been planning this fight since January, when they vowed to keep a steady stream of incremental tax cuts on the House floor, rather than passing a single, omnibus tax-cut plan as they did in 1999.

Republicans felt the specific benefits of the 1999 plan were drowned out by rhetoric about its sheer $792 billion size.

So far, the Republican strategy seems to have worked. Mr. Clinton has backed off objections to eliminating an earnings limit on Social Security and signed that bill into law. He also has reached agreement on a community development plan with House Republican leaders.

If the Senate will pass the marriage tax bill and estate tax repeal, that will mean two more bills at the president's desk.

Republicans have singled out the marriage tax penalty as an issue that highlights their advantage with voters concerned about morality and "family values" where Mr. Clinton's sex scandals have left Democrats vulnerable.

During debate on the House floor, Mr. Archer specifically blamed Mr. Clinton for provisions in the tax code that increase the taxes of about half of all married couples.

"Today, we will fix the marriage tax penalty," the Texas Republican added, "and return a small sense of decency to the tax code."

At a press conference yesterday morning, Rep. David McIntosh, Indiana Republican, spoke of Mr. Clinton's past opposition to tax breaks for married couples by saying: "I know he has had issues about family issues."

But Republicans hope to capitalize on the issue, made less politically dangerous as an expected budget surplus continues to grow.

"We had a strong bipartisan vote, which sets the stage for growing momentum in the Senate," said the bill's chief author, Rep. Jerry Weller, Illinois Republican.

The president's senior advisers have said they would recommend a veto of the bill, but Mr. Weller noted that the president has not made a veto threat himself.

And Mr. Hastert said, "I think he'll sign it."

Mr. Clinton has offered to accept the Republicans' marriage penalty relief bill if they will accept an addition to Medicare of a $50 billion prescription drug benefit. But Mr. Hastert and other Republican leaders have balked at the linkage.

Democrats say they are sure the president will reject the bill, and that they would vote to sustain his veto.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, said Republicans drafted the bill without Democratic input for the same reason they will not attempt to override the veto.

"All they want to say [at the Republican convention] in Philadelphia is that they passed the bill and the president vetoed it," said Mr. Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

As in the February vote, 48 Democrats joined a unified Republican caucus in backing the measure yesterday.

The legislation seeks to fix a quirk in the tax code under which married couples with two incomes pay more in taxes then if single. But in a bow to conservative family groups, it also helps couples that already benefit from a marriage "bonus" typically single-earner families.

The measure would in 2001 increase the standard deduction from $7,200 to $8,600 for all married couples.

It would also increase over six years the amount of a married couple's income subject to the lowest tax rate, beginning in 2003. A Senate version of the bill includes similar provisions.

Under the House plan, families would save $4 billion in 2001, but would pocket an extra $30 billion a year by the time the cut takes full effect.

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