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Estate Tax Repeal to Get Big Push in New Congress

Democrats warn move would be a windfall to wealthy investors

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., wants to repeal the estate tax next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., wants to repeal the estate tax next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

South Dakota Sen. John Thune and other top Republicans will launch a new drive to repeal the estate tax next year, while pulling back on efforts to force a year-end vote aimed at blocking a proposed Treasury Department rule that would tighten levies on inheritances.

Thune, a senior Finance Committee member, has voiced confidence that there would be consensus support for his proposal to repeal the estate tax as part of a broad tax overhaul in the 115th Congress.

“If we can get into a debate about comprehensive tax reform, the odds are good that we can repeal the estate tax,” the South Dakota Republican said in an interview.

President-elect Donald Trump and the House GOP’s “Better Way” agenda both include repealing the estate tax as a cornerstone.

Currently, individuals can inherit estates worth up to $5.45 million without being taxed. Estates valued over that threshold are taxed at a rate of 40 percent, under a bipartisan compromise that was included in the 2013 fiscal cliff deal. According to GOP aides, full repeal of the estate tax would cost an estimated $200 billion over 10 years.

But Thune and allies such as House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas argue that the current threshold for the exemption excludes a number of family-run businesses and farms, forcing heirs in some cases to liquidate assets to pay estate taxes. Last year, seven Democrats joined 233 House Republicans to pass Brady’s estate tax repeal bill on a 240-179 vote.

Republicans promote estate tax repeal as a way to preserve jobs and save small businesses. But liberals such as Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison argue that full repeal would mainly provide a windfall to wealthy investors, including Trump and his family and some of the billionaires and millionaires he has selected for his Cabinet.

“This is 100 percent self-serving — billionaires lining their own pockets. It means we are going to institutionalize an American aristocracy based on wealth,” Ellison said.

While both sides prepare to face off over eliminating the estate tax, time has run out for a session-ending vote to block a pending Treasury Department rule on how partial stakes in family-owned businesses are valued. Treasury has said the change is intended to prevent heirs from understating the fair market value of their estates in order to avoid paying taxes.

Republicans are likely to push for a disapproval resolution under the congressional review law to uproot the estate tax rule if a final version is put into effect. But the Treasury Department has given mixed signals about whether it intends to issue a final rule before President Barack Obama leaves office.

Ohio GOP Rep. Warren Davidson said he was continuing to push for a vote on his bill to bar funding that would be used to implement the proposed estate tax rule. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has a companion proposal.

Some business advocates have voiced concern about an unfinished estate tax rule and delaying action to kill it. Dorothy Coleman, vice president of tax and domestic economic policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said she was hopeful that lawmakers and the incoming Trump administration would end the rule “through the regulatory process or legislation.”

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