Senate starts work on tax extender bill

The Senate voted 96-3 Tuesday to advance a tax extenders bill, passing the first procedural hurdle.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed cloture on a motion to proceed to the Hire More Heroes Act, H.R. 3474, which will serve as the legislative vehicle for S. 2260, the EXPIRE Act.

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Nearly every Senate Republican joined Democrats to advance the $85 billion plus bill that extends tax credits, which expired at the beginning of the year. Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Mike Lee (Utah) voted against the motion.

“Today the Senate begins debate on legislation that will help countless Americans,” Reid said. “Let’s work together to bring American families and the economy a fair shot.”

The underlying House bill being used as the tax vehicle would allow companies to not treat veterans as full-time employees under the ObamaCare employer mandate. The House passed H.R. 3474 in March, making it easier for the Senate to send the bill back to the House with the tax extender package as an amendment.

The House and Senate are taking different approaches to tax policy this year. The Senate is passing shorter extensions as has been done in the past, while the House is trying to decide which tax extenders should become part of the permanent tax code.

Last week, the House passed a “permanent” research and development (R&D) tax extension without offsets. The R&D credit, which has been extended on a short-term basis for nearly 30 years, expired at the end of last year along with more than 50 other tax breaks. The $156 billion House bill extended just the R&D tax provision.

Lawmakers overseeing tax policy have indicated that a final deal to extend all of the expired credits might not come until after the midterm elections. Senate Finance Committee leaders also want permanent extensions, but say they need more time to reach such a deal.

"Why not just pass tax reform today? That would be my first choice," Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said ahead of the vote. "But the reality is tax reform is not happening tomorrow. Reaching a bipartisan, comprehensive plan is going to take time and work."

The Senate package includes several more tax credits for industries such as wind production, which is unpopular with some Republicans and costs nearly $13 billion.

“Rather than blindly extend these provisions, what we ought to do is eliminate these wasteful extenders which are really just subsidies,” Flake said. “One extender that is ripe for elimination is the Production Tax Credit, otherwise known as the PTC.”

Flake said the wind PTC was a “zombie credit” because it’s been “resurrected” repeatedly for nearly 15 years. He suggested that Congress make permanent those tax credits that aid the economy so that there is more stability in the market.

“We all know the U.S. has a $17.5 trillion debt,” Flake said. “All subsidies like this need to be eliminated.”

But Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a supporter of the PTC, says he’ll support the Senate package without offsets, causing some Democrats to criticize Republicans for demanding offsets for an unemployment insurance extension but not for tax breaks.

— Bernie Becker contributed to this article.