Senators on the tax-writing committee on Tuesday advanced legislation to renew more than 50 expired tax breaks for two years, a first effort at addressing the perennial problem of the large portion of the U.S. tax code that is temporary.
The legislative package mostly consists of provisions that affect businesses, but also includes breaks for individuals and ones related to energy. It would cost the Treasury $96 billion to extend all the breaks for two years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, and would punt the issue into the next presidential administration and the next Congress.
Republicans said Tuesday that they want to make a number of the breaks permanent, giving the companies and people who use them more certainty in planning.
But without progress on broader tax reform, the senators acknowledged that it was past time to begin addressing the expired temporary breaks.
"We need to move this package forward as soon as possible," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said at the panel's meeting Tuesday. Hatch noted that the breaks are meant to provide incentives for businesses, and that their purpose is undercut if they are expired.
The breaks expired at the beginning of the year after being re-upped for just weeks in December, after a last-minute drama between the Senate and White House.
While top tax-writers would like to avoid a similar situation this year, the committee is turning even later than it did last year to re-upping the breaks, many of which are regularly renewed on a temporary basis and are known as "extenders. "
Speaking at the committee mark-up, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said the breaks were "temporary in name only," and said, "I hope that we will have an opportunity on the Senate floor to debate the merits of making many of these items permanent."
Hatch said that to enact the extenders, he "agreed to defer litigating the issue of permanence until a later time. But, make no mistake, as chairman of this committee, my goal is to see many of these provisions made permanent."
House Republicans, meanwhile, have been passing certain breaks on a permanent basis throughout the year.
Many of the provisions give relief to the same businesses that earlier in the year pushed for a comprehensive tax reform that would lower the country's 35 percent statutory corporate tax rate, which is the highest among advanced economies.
Five of the biggest and oldest tax breaks account for 51 percent of the benefits, according to Hatch: A tax credit for investments in research and development, a deduction for small business expenses, a deduction for state and local sales taxes, a provision allowing businesses to write off the costs of capital purchases more quickly, and a break on taxes on some overseas corporate earnings.
The biggest break, the credit for research and development, would cost the Treasury $22 billion over the two years.
But the package also includes small measures, such as a credit for up to $250 in school supplies that teachers buy for their students that would cost $434 million.
It also includes a break for wind energy that conservatives have sought to eliminate.
Most Republicans have argued that the main extenders are effectively permanent features of the tax code, having been renewed in some cases for well over a decade, and as such should not be regarded as losing money for the Treasury if they are made permanent.
The White House and congressional Democrats, however, have disagreed. The White House also said in December that it would not go along with permanent breaks for businesses unless certain tax credits for poor individuals were also made permanent.
The package passed the committee 23-3 Tuesday, with Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Dan Coats of Indiana and Mike Enzi of Wyoming voting no.