WASHINGTON – House Republicans forced through legislation Thursday granting permanent tax relief to married couples, despite Democratic complaints that they were raiding the Social Security reserve to do it.
After years of debate on the issue, the House voted 271-142 to make permanent tax relief targeted to married couples set to begin in 2005 and end in 2010.
Couples who do not itemize their tax returns would receive the same deduction as two single people. Other changes in the tax brackets would benefit all married couples, and additionally, eligibility for a low-income tax credit would be liberalized.
In all, according to Republicans, 36 million couples would be affected under the so-called "marriage penalty" tax relief, saving them $42 billion annually.
But Democrats complained Thursday that the savings were really a big cost for government, which would have to make up for the lost tax revenues somewhere else — most likely the Social Security fund.
"An election-year ploy," snapped Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas — although 60 Democrats crossed party lines to vote for the measure.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the bill was part of a "fiscal irresponsibility rampage" by Republicans, coming on the heels of an effort to make an estate tax repeal permanent.
But Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill hailed the House, saying it had voted "to prevent a tax hike on hardworking married couples."
He urged the Senate to follow suit, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she would press for action.
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., expressed little enthusiasm for scheduling a debate on the issue on the Senate floor, however, suggesting that the Senate was exhausted from its own tax relief fight this week.
"With all the work we've got to do, I think it would be difficult to anticipate another tax debate along the lines of what the House is proposing. ... My sense is that we've been there and done that," he told reporters.
By a vote of 54-44, Republicans failed Wednesday to pass a bill to make the estate tax repeal permanent. The measure was short six votes of the 60 needed to stop debate that would have bogged down the bill with amendments.
Advocates hope this is just the beginning of a wider attempt to make the tax cuts signed by President Bush last year permanent. Currently, they are all scheduled to expire in 2010.
The House already passed a bill that would make all of the cuts permanent, but so far Daschle has refused to schedule it on the Senate floor. So, Republicans are passing a series of permanent tax cuts instead to push the issue.
So far, the House has been successful in making permanent the estate tax repeal, an adoption tax credit and tax-free treatment for Holocaust restitution. Debate is expected this summer on a measure to make permanent certain breaks for retirement accounts, and possibly other bills as well.
Republicans on Thursday fashioned the marriage tax debate as aid to working families. Without passage of the marriage tax measure, added Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., "We will be in essence putting a tax back on the backs of " working couples in 2011, at an average of $1,400 a year.
Democrats, mindful that tax cuts are usually popular with voters in an election year, nonetheless took turns lambasting Republicans. As an alternative, they offered a measure that would make the permanent repeal of the tax conditional on the financial shape of Social Security trust funds. That was rejected on a nearly party-line vote.
Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., said the marriage bill would cost Social Security $460 billion for the first decade it was in effect. "We're going to break the bank for senior citizens when it comes to retirement benefits that they expect to get," he said.
"When are you going to be honest with people that you have to pay for stuff?" asked Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., pointing to House Republicans. "When are you going to be honest?"
In all, 210 Republicans joined one independent and 60 democrats in favor of the bill. There were 141 Democrats and one independent opposed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.