House Dems Suggest Changes To Estate Tax Language, Showdown With Senate

12/15/2010 07:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WASHINGTON -- With the Bush tax cuts set to expire at the end of the month, House Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he "absolutely" wants to send the latest tax cut deal back to the Senate with changes to the estate tax provision.

"It's not about symbolism," he told reporters at a closed-door meeting held Tuesday night by members of the House Democratic Caucus. "At my age I got over symbolism a long time ago."

But when asked if he would whip an amendment to estate tax language, he demurred. "That's a good question," he said with a chuckle.

Angered by the proposal to exempt individual estates worth as much as $5 million from taxation, some House Democrats want to lower the threshold to $3.5 million. They also want a stiffer tax imposed on larger estates, setting the rate at 45 percent rather than the 35 percent advocated by Republicans.

Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said some House Democrats are pushing for a separate vote on their preferred estate tax measure. Elijah Cummings (D - Md.) had similar comments.

Many caucus members want the opportunity to vote on various proposals, Cummings told reporters, like trying get the estate tax threshold lowered to $3.5 million. Others, he added, want to make sure the unemployment insurance is given a two-year extension.

"It's a question of how much can be changed without ruining the president's effort to get this through," he said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said a "substantial portion of the caucus would support rolling back the estate tax," but that leadership had not "fully expressed their opinions" on the matter.

"I would hope that would get a vote," said DeFazio of the estate tax provision, adding that he believes the House should also have stand-alone vote on unemployment insurance.

The comments portend a potentially dramatic legislative showdown between the House and Senate, with the White House allied with the latter. The President has pushed for a quick resolution to the debate over the expiring Bush tax cuts. But if the Senate and House can't agree immediately on language regarding the estate tax, it means the bill could get tugged back and forth between the two chambers, to be resolved, ultimately, in time-consuming conference committee.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was evasive about the schedule for the vote. "I expect the House to take it up after the Senate vote," he told reporters late Tuesday night.

As for whether there will be a vote on the estate tax amendment? "It's certainly an option," said Hoyer.

The Senate will vote on passage of the $858 billion tax-cut package on Wednesday.

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