At least four Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee say they’re not ready to back the push by President Barack Obama and party leaders for retroactive tax legislation to prevent companies from moving their legal addresses out of the U.S.
In interviews and statements this week, Senators Tom Carper of Delaware, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Warner of Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania all declined to back a stand-alone retroactive tax bill to limit inversions.
“Do we get something done on this now?” Casey asked in a brief interview this week. “Or do we make it part of tax reform overall, which I hope we can begin to address as soon as the election is over.”
The tactical split makes it harder to pass Democratic legislation to penalize eight companies including Medtronic Inc. (MDT:US) and AbbVie Inc. (ABBV:US) with pending mergers that would move their legal addresses outside the U.S. to limit their tax bills.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said action on inversions “may be impossible before the election” in November. Senator Charles Schumer of New York said the issue was “too complicated” to address before the August congressional recess and that he hoped the Finance panel would act right afterward.
Obama plans to promote limiting such inversions in a speech in Los Angeles today where he will accuse companies of renouncing their citizenship for tax benefits while taking advantage of U.S. infrastructure.
Obama administration officials who sought anonymity told reporters on a conference call today that the proposal, which was included in Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget, would save $17 billion over 10 years.
“This is an issue that has garnered bipartisan support in the past and we don’t understand why it wouldn’t this time,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, told reporters today.
U.S. companies are racing to complete tax-reducing offshore mergers before a credible threat to stop them emerges from Congress. AbbVie, maker of the arthritis medicine Humira, announced the largest such inversion deal July 18 with a plan to move its tax home to the U.K. in a $55 billion purchase of Shire Plc.
Republicans, who favor addressing the issue as part of a revamp of the U.S. tax code, can block Senate legislation and stop the Republican-led House from doing anything to limit inversions.
The Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes in the Senate, has 13 Democrats and 11 Republicans, which means it can’t advance a partisan bill if there are any defections.
In a brief interview today, Warner said he had “concerns” about inversions and wouldn’t answer directly when asked if he supports a stand-alone bill.
“It’s one more reason why we ought to argue for major tax reform, coupled with entitlement reform where we’ll actually get our balance sheet right,” he said. “I still think the best way would be to do corporate tax reform.”
The administration’s budget earlier this year included a limit on inversions that would effectively prevent U.S. companies from changing their addresses by purchasing a smaller foreign business.
Last week, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew endorsed making that plan retroactive, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is pushing the Finance panel to act. Lew met privately with Senate Democrats today.
Finance Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon hasn’t set a time for a committee vote, and he is working with Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the committee. Hatch has expressed openness to near-term legislation with several conditions, including his opposition to a retroactive bill.
Wyden told reporters today that Democrats’ efforts would be bolstered by “grassroots” support and that senators are beginning to realize the need for immediate action. He said he is exploring several possibilities and declined to provide details.
“Members are seeing that the pace of tax reform has been slow,” he said. “The acceleration of inversions has been very fast, and that is kind of a recipe for trouble.”
Bennet, chairman of Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, said he didn’t think the anti-inversion push would hurt the party’s fundraising. He said he was still reviewing legislation on the issue.
“It would be nice if we could get to a conversation about how to reform the tax code so that we’re rewarding job growth and wage growth within the United States of America, which is what we ought to be focused on,” Bennet said in an interview. “And this is maybe the beginning of that discussion.”
Obama’s push to limit inversions has raised concerns from companies that could be affected, potentially creating an election-year challenge for Senate Democrats seeking to cast themselves as pro-business ahead of the November midterm elections.
Amid opposition from top House Republicans, the Senate last week passed legislation reauthorizing the nation’s financial backstop for insurance to protect companies against losses from acts of terrorism, and there’s widespread Democratic support for renewing the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s charter before it expires Sept. 30.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, the chamber’s third-ranking Republican, said he saw the attraction of the “simple sound bite” for Obama on limiting inversions, though he was skeptical the effort would gain political traction.
“Obviously there’s a populist appeal to it,” Thune said in an interview. “But I still think that it’s hard sometimes to take an issue like this and be able to package it in a way that really sells.”
Democrats also haven’t settled on some details of their approach. A plan from Senator Carl Levin of Michigan would create a two-year moratorium on inversions to give lawmakers time to seek tax-code changes.
His brother, Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, called for a permanent law limiting inversions.
Schumer favors a provision that would limit inverted companies’ ability to borrow in the U.S., a common technique for shifting income from this country to the lower-taxed foreign parent companies. Schumer, a Finance Committee member, has said he may release his own proposal.
“Levin’s proposal is not enough,” Schumer said at a July 22 Finance hearing. “We have to go further.”
Four Democrats on the Finance Committee have co-sponsored Carl Levin’s bill: Ben Cardin of Maryland, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Bill Nelson of Florida.
New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, another Democratic Finance Committee member, said today in an e-mailed statement that Congress has a responsibility to act quickly to limit inversions.
“Delaying action to close down inversions is akin to giving inversions the green light,” Menendez said. “So long as we delay action on inversions, more corporations will avail themselves of this loophole and become opponents of tax reform.”
In a statement July 22, Delaware’s Carper said he prefers addressing “root causes” instead of symptoms.
“Some of our colleagues have suggested some intriguing proposals to address this particular problem that I will continue to review,” Carper said. “However, it is my strong belief that an overhaul of the tax code is the single best approach to address this critical issue and many others.”
Even with wide bipartisan agreement to lower the corporate tax rate, Congress is deadlocked on how to do it and how to alter the individual tax system.
Wyden wants to make the biggest U.S. tax code changes since 1986. It’s unlikely that will happen until 2015 at the earliest.
Carl Levin’s bill is S. 2360.
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