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Lawmakers want increase in oil-spill tax

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats brought up legislation yesterday coupling a fivefold increase in the tax that oil companies pay into a spill liability fund with help for the jobless, doctors and cash-starved states.

The sprawling, 364-page bill contains many provisions long overdue for completion by Congress, including the renewal of dozens of popular but expired tax breaks for individuals and businesses.

Many elements of the bill, like the tax cuts and further unemployment benefits for people out of a job for more than six months, enjoy broad support. But Republicans are generally opposed to the measure because it contains almost $60 billion in tax hikes.

Even with those levies — on investment fund managers, oil companies and some international businesses, among others — the measure would add about $80 billion to the deficit over the next decade, congressional analysts said.

It closely resembles a bill that passed the House last month with a handful of exceptions.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., moved to restore $24 billion in aid to cash-strapped states to help them pay for their Medicaid budgets next year. Deficit concerns prompted House leaders to scrap a companion plan last month, generating criticism from governors and labor unions, who say that without the funding, states would have to lay off workers and make other painful budget cuts to make up for the budget shortfall.

The other change unveiled yesterday would raise the tax on oil produced offshore from 8 cents to 41 cents per barrel. That’s 7 cents higher than legislation that passed the House last month. The move to increase the tax would raise $15 billion over the coming decade as Congress seeks to shore up the fund in the wake of the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But it’s also being used to ease a tax hike passed by the House on investment fund managers and to help pay for other tax cuts.

Typically, fund managers get a fee to manage funds or assets. They also get a share of the profits earned for investors above a certain level.

Those shares of profits, called carried interest, are taxed as capital gains, with a top rate of 15 percent. The House bill would tax 75 percent of the fees as regular income, with a top tax rate of 35 percent but is set to rise to 39.6 percent in 2011.

The Senate proposal would tax half the shares of profits as regular income in 2011 and 2012. Beginning in 2013, the portion taxed as regular income would rise to 65 percent.

In a move to lessen the bite on venture capitalists, the Senate bill would impose regular income taxes on only 55 percent of profits that are the result of sales of assets held for seven or more years. The Senate has long resisted moves by the House to tax hedge fund managers and others at higher rates.

Using the hike in oil cleanup fees to pay for other costs in the bill drew the ire of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

“I think the American people think the oil cleanup trust fund ought to be used to clean up oil spills,” McConnell said.

The Senate passed an earlier form of the broader legislation back in March. It would extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless through November and revive dozens of expired tax breaks for individuals and businesses, including a property tax deduction for people who don’t itemize, lucrative credits that help businesses finance research and develop new products, and a sales tax deduction that mainly helps people in states without income taxes.

The measure is coming back for a second debate in the Senate because it was never sent to an official House-Senate negotiating committee. The changes made by the Senate, where passage is expected next week, would send the measure back to the House for another vote and then on to President Barack Obama for his signature.

A temporary extension of unemployment benefits and other lapsed programs expired last week, which means that more than 200,000 people per week who are eligible to reapply for jobless checks won’t be able to do so. The cut-off does not affect the newly jobless, who are covered under state-financed unemployment insurance.

The bill also contains a $1 billion summer jobs initiative aimed at employing 350,000 youth aged 14 to 24 years old. The traditional Memorial Day start of summer has already passed, however, and it’s unclear how quickly the program can be implemented.

The measure would also provide $23 billion in help to the nation’s doctors, who would otherwise be hit by a 21 percent cut in their Medicare reimbursements. The bill would temporarily fix the problem through the end of next year and actually give the doctors a 2.2 percent raise this year.

The catchall legislation also eliminates loopholes in the tax code that subsidize companies that ship U.S. jobs overseas and extends a program that subsidizes the borrowing costs of state and local governments undertaking new infrastructure projects.


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