Tax Reform Panel Faces Challenges in Congress

The Senate's top Democratic tax writer said Tuesday that a presidentially appointed panel's recommendations for overhauling tax laws don't stand a chance in Congress.

"That thing's dead. That's dead, Mr. Secretary," Sen. Max Baucus of Montana told Treasury Secretary John Snow, who had been called before the Senate Finance Committee to discuss the president's budget.

"We don't accept that," Snow replied.

"Congress thinks it's dead," Baucus answered back. "That's going nowhere."

President Bush last year asked nine experts to study the nation's tax laws and recommend changes that would make them simpler, fairer and more economically efficient.

The President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform recommended last fall that lawmakers scrap most of the existing tax deductions and credits and replace them with simpler benefits.

Snow said the Treasury Department is studying the report and plans make its own recommendations to the president, but the department hasn't said when its analysis will be finished. Snow told the committee there's no "hard and fast timeline" for the effort to rewrite tax laws.

"It's a big undertaking. We want to get it right," Snow told the committee. "We only get a chance once every 20 years."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has his own plan for simplifying tax laws, said progress will not be made unless the White House starts setting some deadlines.

"My concern is that the sand is going to run out of your hourglass pretty quickly," Wyden told Snow. "Without any deadlines, you can't make it happen."

Former Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who is vice chairman of the tax reform panel, said last week that he's disappointed the White House hasn't pressed lawmakers to get to work rewriting the tax laws.

The day after Bush outlined his priorities for the year in his State of the Union address, Breaux said the commission's report seemed to have disappeared.

"Must be in a closet somewhere, on a shelf somewhere," he said.