Thirteen House Democrats yesterday switched their votes to help sustain President Clinton’s veto of legislation that would have repealed the federal tax on estates.
Republicans immediately vowed to make the vote a campaign issue even as they accused Democrats of playing politics.
“If the American people really want this tax relief, we need a Republican Congress with a Republican president who will sign it,” said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, framing the campaign issue for the GOP.
“This is a classic example of how election-year politics can kill a common-sense bill that does the right thing for the American people,” said Rep. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican.
The 274-157 vote fell 14 short of the necessary two-thirds margin to override the veto with 431 members voting. In the afternoon vote, 53 Democrats and all but one Republican supported for the override.
Rep. Sam Farr of California was one of 65 Democrats who originally voted for the measure June 9 when it passed 279-136. He said he decided yesterday to vote against an attempted veto override because Republicans “didn’t want reform. They just wanted a message.”
Mr. Farr said Republicans should have negotiated with the White House to craft a compromise bill.
“You can’t negotiate with a ghost,” Mr. DeLay countered, saying Republicans had tried to negotiate but “the president doesn’t want tax relief.”
The bill, which would have phased out the estate tax over the next decade, passed the House in June with enough votes to override a veto. In the Senate, the measure passed 59-39 on July 14, far short of the 67 votes needed to overcome a veto.
At a press conference after the vote, Mr. DeLay read a list of the names of Democrats who switched to vote against the estate-tax repeal.
It included local lawmakers Reps. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat, and James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat.
“If they had not switched their votes” the veto would have been overridden, Mr. DeLay said. “They are the ones people ought to focus on to explain this outrage.”
Other House Democrats who switched their votes were California Reps. Joe Baca, Anna G. Eshoo, Tom Lantos, and Zoe Lofgren; Colorado Rep. Mark Udall; Florida Reps. Allen Boyd and Peter Deutsch; New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr.; and New York Reps. Michael R. McNulty and Nydia M. Velazquez.
The presidential candidates quickly weighed in on the issue.
“Governor Bush believes it’s wrong to make people who have already paid taxes pay them again when they die. When he is president, there will be no veto to override because he will sign the abolition of the death tax into law,” the Bush campaign said in a statement.
“Vice President Gore would immediately eliminate estate taxes for most family farmers and small business owners. The Republican plan would benefit only a wealthy few at the expense of most people in those groups, which would have to wait until 2010 to get estate tax relief,” the Gore campaign said.
The estate-tax bill is just one of a series of narrowly crafted tax bills pushed by Republicans as an alternative to passing one single, large tax cut as they have done in years past.
House Republicans plan next week a veto-override vote for a package of tax cuts for married couples, but that is not expected to pass either.
“The question is whether we can get something done in a bipartisan way or whether we [look] for vetoes and press conferences,” Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, said.
Much of the hourlong debate that preceded the vote was spent with voices raised, in accusatory tones.
“This so grossly violates the fundamental virtues of thrift and hard work,” said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, Washington Republican, of the estate tax.
“It’s not about the money; it’s about the character of a nation,” said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, responding to Democratic arguments that repealing the tax would benefit the wealthy.
“You don’t give a dead guy a tax break,” said Mr. Armey. “You abstain from stealing his life’s legacy from his children.”
Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat, whose district includes more farmers than any other in the nation, said he had “not heard such concern for family farms in my four terms.”
Rep. Karen L. Thurman, Florida Democrat, said a Democratic alternative would have taken effect this year rather than phasing in over 10 years.
“The choice is clear: 10 years of waiting or immediate relief,” she said.
In sharp contrast to the harsh rhetoric from the House floor, the Senate Finance Committee passed unanimously legislation that would provide as much as $100 billion in tax cuts over the next decade to encourage Americans to save for retirement.
Despite criticisms from some lawmakers, staff and lobbyists all said this will be the tax vehicle, if any, that moves this year.
“The work we do today will go a long way toward helping Americans everywhere prepare for secure retirements,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr. “It builds upon a philosophy that is largely embraced by members on both sides of the aisle … self-reliance,” the Delaware Republican said.
More than half of the bill’s cost focuses on expanding the use of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) by increasing annual contribution limits and income limits.
Another piece of the plan would increase the maximum 401(k), 403(b), or simplified employee pension plan contributions that can be made under a salary-reduction arrangement.
The plan also includes two Democratic-backed provisions, one that would provide a tax credit ranging from 5 percent to 50 percent for low- to middle-income workers who contribute to a qualified retirement plan, and another that would give a tax credit to small businesses that start a pension plan.
Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, said the tax credit for individuals was too generous, giving both the current-law tax deduction and, as proposed, a tax credit for the contribution. “I think that’s too much,” Mr. Nickles said.
Democrats said the provision actually scaled back 16 percent from the original version introduced by Mr. Roth on Tuesday did not go far enough.