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House Republicans propose a tax cut for married couples

House Republicans unveiled their own proposal Monday to give a tax cut to married couples, stepping up pressure on President Clinton and Democrats to agree to an election-year compromise on taxes.

The Republican plan, laid out by Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was intended in part to reduce the so-called marriage penalty paid by many two-income couples, and represented a counteroffer to a more narrowly drawn provision proposed last week by Clinton.

Archer said his plan, which would give a tax break to nearly all married couples, would be worth $182-billion over 10 years, more than four times as much as Clinton's plan.

The benefits of the Republican plan would go to couples across the income spectrum whether or not they pay a marriage penalty, and would include couples with only one spouse working.

The president's proposal, valued by the White House at $45-billion over 10 years, would limit benefits largely to two-income couples who claimed the standard deduction on their federal income taxes, nearly all of whom are in low-income and middle-income brackets and most of whom pay some marriage penalty.

Archer said his bill would be taken up by the committee on Wednesday and would go to the floor for a vote by the full House in two weeks.

It is the first in a series of separate tax cuts, each with powerful constituencies, that the House leadership intends to bring up this year in a change of strategy from the last few years, when Republicans assembled catch-all tax bills that the White House and Democrats cast as fiscally irresponsible.

"Fixing the marriage penalty would be the best Valentine's Day present we could give to millions of couples," Archer said Monday.

Democrats said Archer's approach was too expensive, and they criticized the Republicans for not seeking a bipartisan deal before moving ahead with their bill.

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said the bulk of the tax relief under Archer's bill would go to the most affluent 25 percent of taxpayers. And he said the $180-billion cost of the tax cut would drain the projected federal budget surplus before Congress and the administration worked out plans to shore up Social Security and Medicare.

Republicans have long made reducing or eliminating the marriage penalty a goal of their tax-cutting efforts. The penalty mostly hits couples in which the two partners have roughly similar incomes.

In some cases, the penalty arises when the combined income of the partners pushes them into a higher income-tax bracket than they would be subject to if single and filing separately. In other cases, couples pay the penalty because the standard deduction for couples filing jointly is less than twice the standard deduction for a single filer.

But not all couples pay a marriage penalty. Last year, of 51.4-million joint returns filed, 24.8-million, or 48 percent, paid a marriage penalty, according to a study by the Treasury Department.

Another 21-million, or 41 percent _ mostly couples in which only one partner worked, or in which one partner made much more than the other _ actually received a marriage "bonus" _ a lower tax bill than they would pay if single.

Archer's bill would raise the standard deduction for couples so that it is twice that for single taxpayers. Most high-income couples itemize their deductions and would not benefit from that change. Clinton's proposal is built around a similar increase in the standard deduction.

But Archer also proposed to expand the 15 percent income-tax bracket to higher income limits than current law specifies. Under his plan, the 15 percent bracket for married couples, which is adjusted for inflation each year and currently ends at $43,850 of taxable income, would rise gradually until 2008, when it would reach twice the level for single filers, which is currently $26,250.

Archer's bill provides no tax cut for single people.

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