(CNSNews.com) - By a vote of 60-39, the Senate passed a bill Tuesday to provide $248 billion in tax relief to couples hit by the marriage tax penalty.
The vote closes a loophole in the tax code that forces 25 million married couples to pay more in taxes than if they were single. The bill was adopted after a smaller Democratic alternative was defeated, and a House-Senate conference has been scheduled to hammer out differences between the chambers.
The House bill, which passed in February, provides an average $1,400 in relief to 25 million American couples.
President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill, saying it would eliminate funds for health and education spending, and has offered Republicans a deal which would include his signature on the bill in exchange for congressional approval of a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Republicans have so far rejected the deal, and called on Clinton to sign the bill, which will likely be delivered to his desk early next week.
"The only thing that stands in the way of death tax relief (and) the only thing that stands in the way of marriage penalty relief is the president of the United States," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS).
But Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) decried the bill as "election year politics" and said the country "had more important priorities."
Those charges were repeated by White House spokesperson Joe Lockhart, who told reporters, "It's very clear that the Republicans in Congress have decided to put aside their responsibilities and to play politics. They've made very clear that they want to get bills done, timed to their convention, so they'll have something to talk about at their convention."
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), a member of the Democratic Senate leadership, said shortly after the vote that "the very wealthiest voters are the clear winners" under recently-passed GOP bills to repeal the marriage penalty and the estate tax.
Until the last minute, the White House had hoped to wring concessions out of the Senate in exchange for President Clinton's signature. But the GOP majority in the Senate displayed unusual unanimity in passing the bill, while luring several Democrats across the aisle.
Seven Democrats voted for the bill: Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Max Cleland of Georgia, Dianne Feinstein of California, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. Republican Sen. George Voinovich was the only GOP Senator to vote against the bill.
Despite Democratic objections, Republicans are hoping to make the targeted tax cut a centerpiece of the fall election campaign. Polls show that the estate tax and the marriage penalty tax bills have broad public support.
"We will see who supports marriage tax relief, and we will see who thinks American families are not entitled to this relief," said Sen. William Roth (R-DE), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
Republican leaders are planning to take up two more tax bills this week: a five-year, $17 billion bill that gradually raises individual retirement account contribution limits to $5,000 from $2,000 annually and for 401(k)s to $15,000 from $10,500; and a five-year, $45 billion bill to reduce taxes on Social Security benefits.