Wealthy group that includes Warren Buffett, Jimmy Carter calls for heftier estate tax

The White House, as part of its offer to avoid the looming spending cuts and tax increases in the "fiscal cliff," has called for returning the estate tax to its 2009 parameters of a $3.5 million exemption and a 45 percent top rate.

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But some Senate Democrats — including Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) and Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) — have called for extending current estate tax policy, which was put into place in the lame-duck tax deal of 2010.

This summer, Democratic leaders in the Senate were forced to drop the administration’s estate tax proposal from a plan to extend Bush-era tax rates for family income up to $250,000 a year.

Both Baucus and Pryor are up for reelection in 2014 in states that voted for GOP nominee Mitt Romney in this year’s presidential election. 

Without congressional action, the estate tax will revert back to the 2001 parameters of a $1 million exemption and 55 percent top rate. 

Republicans have long said that the estate tax drags down small businesses and family farms, with a large number of GOP officials calling for getting rid of the estate tax altogether. GOP lawmakers have said the estate tax is not an efficient collector of revenue, and can stifle economic growth.

Rubin and other participants on Tuesday’s call said those arguments didn’t hold water, even as they acknowledged that opponents of the estate tax — who have dubbed it the “death tax” — have done a good job with messaging. 

Under current law, some businesses and farms can have up to 15 years to pay off their estate tax liabilities, leading Mike Lapham of United for a Fair Economy to call the GOP argument a “canard.”

“As individuals and families that have benefited most significantly from public investments and a strong society, we are proud to have the opportunity to contribute back to the country that helped to make our success possible,” the group said in its statement for a “responsible estate tax proposal.” 

The group is also calling for its proposed 45 percent rate to rise for even wealthier estates, but has not yet spelled out its preferred way for doing so.

According to the Tax Policy Center, the administration’s proposal for a $3.5 million exemption would hit somewhere around 7,000 or 7,500 estates in 2013, while extending the current $5 million policy would reach around 4,000 estates.

Snapping back to the $1 million exemption, on the other hand, would hit more than 50,000 returns, the tax center said. 

That exemption, plus a 55 percent rate, would raise roughly $40 billion next year, while the administration’s proposal would raise about half that and the current policy about a third. 

Bill Gates Sr., the father of the Microsoft founder; the television produce Norman Lear and members of the Disney and Rockefeller families also signed Tuesday’s statement.