WASHINGTON - The House failed yesterday to override President Clinton's veto of a bill that would have cut taxes for nearly all married couples, blocking a major Republican priority and leaving the issue for voters to decide in the November elections.
The 270-158 tally in favor of overriding Clinton's veto drew the support of 49 Democrats.
But it fell 16 votes short of the two-thirds majority required to enact the bill over the president's objections.
The measure had been promoted as a way to ease the tax burden on the many couples who are said to pay a "marriage penalty" because their combined tax bill is higher than it would be if they were single.
But as with a Republican effort to repeal the estate tax - which failed last week to override a presidential veto - Clinton complained that the tax cut was too expensive, too geared toward the wealthy and too threatening to the nation's prosperity.
Instead, the president said in a statement, "I urge Congress to work with me on a middle-class tax cut to help Americans send their children to college, provide long-term care for elderly or disabled relatives, make child care more affordable and provide targeted marriage penalty tax relief."
Defeat for this term
In conceding defeat for this term of Congress, Rep. Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Americans "will have to vote for new leadership in the White House if they want justice and fairness in the White House."
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, favors broad tax cuts similar to what congressional Republicans have sought.
His rival, Vice President Al Gore, supports the more targeted approach of tax credits for family-related expenses favored by Clinton and most other Democrats.
The Republicans' defeat, for now, "does not mean we have given up on tax relief," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
As the congressional term draws to a close, Republican leaders have decided to focus on winning agreement from Clinton for a narrower package of tax cuts that would aid small businesses, encourage pension savings, offer incentives for investment in urban centers, and repeal the century-old 3 percent tax on telephone service.
Based on discussions Tuesday with Clinton, Armey said he was optimistic that all the pieces of this smaller package would be passed by Congress within the next few weeks and signed into law.
For many Republicans, though, a repeal of the "marriage penalty," which affects about 25 million two-earner couples, is an issue that social as well as fiscal conservatives consider a top priority.
"This is where the rubber meets the road," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican. "This is a populist issue; it's about average people."
The Democrats countered that the Republican bill, which would have cost about $300 billion over 10 years, went far beyond helping "average" people who must pay the marriage penalty.
They pointed out that the measure would have cut taxes for nearly all married couples - even wealthy ones and those who already pay less in taxes than if they were single.
"Sixty percent of the benefits go to people who earn above the middle class, have more money than the middle class and don't have a marriage penalty," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt.
"The American people want tax relief that is fair, reasonable and targeted at people who really need it."
The Republican bill would provide relief to married couples via several methods: raising the standard deduction, expanding the 15 percent bottom tax bracket, boosting the ceiling on the alternative minimum tax and increasing the earned income tax credit.
Democrats offered a counterproposal - at a cost of $100 billion over 10 years - that would increase the standard deduction, helping only those married couples who do not itemize deductions.
Yesterday's tally was nearly identical to the margin by which the tax cut bill originally passed the House in July.
In the Maryland delegation, all four Democrats voted to sustain Clinton's veto.
Three of the four Maryland Republicans voted to override it; the fourth, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, from the Eastern Shore, missed the vote because of a family illness but had voted for the tax cut when it passed the first time.
Republicans have been disappointed by the failure of their broad tax cut measures to generate enough popular support to make Democrats fearful of voting against them.
Shift of strategy
But they have shifted course to advocate that money left over from the $268 billion surplus projected for fiscal year 2001 go toward paying down the federal debt - a cause that has attracted popular support.
Most of next year's surplus, about $198 billion, is already earmarked for Social Security and Medicare payments, though it will be used initially to retire government debt.
Republicans propose that $42 billion of the surplus not designated for Social Security or Medicare be used to pay down the debt as well.
That would leave about $28 billion for additional spending and tax cuts next year.
Democrats contend that if Republicans had had their way, all the non-Social Security surplus would have been consumed by tax cuts.
Republican argue that if Democrats were in charge, that same money would be used for costly new spending programs.
For the first time in a generation, money has been set aside in recent years to reduce the debt - but only because the two parties cannot agree on either a major tax cut or major new spending and hold each other in check.