GOP plans fast track for tax overhaul

Speaker John Boehner said in a speech Tuesday that House Republicans would try to attach a timeline to fast-track a broad tax overhaul to a vote extending the George W. Bush-era tax rates before the November elections.

The effort is part of a bid by the Speaker to get started early — and out in front of Democrats — on a raft of year-end tax and spending provisions that could await congressional action in a lame-duck session.

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“Our bill to stop the New Year’s Day tax increase will also establish an expedited process by which Congress would enact real tax reform in 2013,” Boehner (R-Ohio) said in remarks to a fiscal summit in Washington. “This process would look something like how we handle Trade Promotion Authority, where you put in place a timeline for both houses to act.

“The Ways and Means Committee will work out the details,” Boehner said, “but the bottom line is, if we do this right, we will never again have to deal with the uncertainty of expiring tax rates.”

Democrats have also pushed for far-reaching tax reform, but they reacted skeptically to Boehner’s remarks on Tuesday.

“If we can reach some kind of agreement, that’d be good,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee. “But I suspect that that’s a political gambit. It’s not a good-faith offer. So we’ll have to see how much of it’s really true.”

Voting simply to begin the tax-reform process would allow House Republicans to take the lead on the politically charged overhaul without subjecting their members to a vote on a specific plan in the weeks before the election. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the Ways and Means chairman, has been discussing a broader tax plan with House Republicans in small group sessions. The House GOP budget that passed in April called for a simpler tax code with lower individual and corporate rates, but it left out most details on which deductions, loopholes and other tax breaks would be eliminated.

President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders want to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, but the president has threatened to veto another extension of the rates for the wealthy, which he agreed to in 2010.

For that reason, a measure linking an expedited tax overhaul with a complete extension of the Bush rates is expected to stall in the Senate. Republicans could, however, push for the fast-track tax process as part of what are expected to be broader negotiations in a lame-duck session that include raising the debt ceiling and $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect in January.

Under Trade Promotion Authority, which Republicans generally favor, Congress has 90 days to vote on trade pacts sent up by the White House, and cannot consider any amendments. Trade Promotion Authority also sets the parameters for what sort of agreement can be considered for fast-track consideration.

But GOP aides said that, even though Boehner specifically discussed Trade Promotion Authority on Tuesday, House Republicans are looking at a variety of expedited processes that have been used in the past, and have yet to settle on just one.

Those processes, the aides said, include methods discussed in last year’s supercommittee, which considered tax reform but ultimately failed to reach any deal to reduce deficits.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the congressional fiscal panel, noted that it was Democrats who floated the possibility of a fast-tracked tax-reform process.

“Well, we offered that opportunity in the supercommittee, and they passed it up,” Kerry said Tuesday. “So we’ll have to see where it fits in terms of where we come at the end of the year.”

While both parties have talked up the idea of tax reform, they have serious differences on what they think an overhauled tax code should look like, with Obama having pushed an election-year theme of tax fairness and most GOP lawmakers dead-set against any tax increases.

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“Tax reform must not be a smokescreen for giving tax cuts to millionaires while increasing taxes for middle- and lower-income families. Yet that is the gist of the Speaker’s approach,” said Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is not seeking reelection this year, said that lawmakers should have dealt more substantively with issues like tax reform in the current Congress, and that she wasn’t sure Boehner’s plan would help the process along.

“We’re not exactly consumed by a waiting legislative agenda,” Snowe said. “And we haven’t been for some time.”

The Maine Republican has cited the current gridlock on Capitol Hill, and the disappearance of the political center, as one of her major reasons for heading for the exit.

“We’re in a state of diversionary tactics here, to avoid the big questions, because of the election,” Snowe added. “But we’ve been doing that since the last election. That’s the point. We haven’t dealt with any mighty questions.”