WASHINGTON - The Senate is nearing a deal to approve, as early as today, a measure that would send tax-credit checks of up to $400 a child to 6.5 million low-income families, after Democrats spent the week hammering at Republicans for denying such families the credit under the new tax cut.
Senate leaders negotiated intensely yesterday to reach a bipartisan deal, but it was unclear whether a vote would come by the end of the week. Conservative Republicans in the Senate and House, who are loath to give a tax credit to people who earn too little to owe income taxes, are pushing to pair the bill with other long-sought tax cuts, such as a repeal of the estate tax.
Democrats seized on reports that the 10-year, $350 billion tax-cut package enacted last week deprives many lower-income people of some of its benefits - and provides nothing for others - to renew their attacks on Republicans for what they say is an unfair measure. This time, Democrats have a concrete example, made more politically potent because it involves children.
"People can focus on it because it's one issue and it's so grossly unfair," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said of the decision not to extend the child tax credit to some lower-income people. Republicans "really poke working families in the eye with what they've done."
The measure being discussed would cover families with annual incomes between $10,500 and $26,625. They include an estimated 103,000 families - with 196,000 children - in Maryland, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, an advocacy group for low- and middle-income people.
Even if Senate leaders can agree to approve it, the bill faces obstacles in the House. Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, has dismissed the measure as a low priority and has said the House would consider it only as part of a broader package of tax cuts.
"There are a lot of other things that are more important than that," DeLay told reporters. "To me, it's a little difficult to give tax relief to those who do not pay income taxes. It's a spending program."
Democrats and some Republicans say it is flagrantly unfair to deprive poor people of the benefits of a tax cut that was billed as a boon to all Americans.
"As our nation struggles with a sluggish economy, we should ensure that everyone benefits from the tax cut," said Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat.
Lincoln, who is sponsoring the $3.5 billion tax-credit measure with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, tried yesterday to force a Senate vote. But Republicans blocked the move.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Finance Committee, wants to couple the change with a measure to make permanent the increase in the child tax credit. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, wants to attach a permanent extension of tax breaks for married couples.
But many Republicans oppose the low-income child-tax-credit measure on principle.
"I don't like the idea of sending a check to people who don't pay income taxes," said Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.
Senate action on the measure would be a follow-up to enactment last week of the $350 billion tax-cut and state aid package. That package included an increase, from $600 to $1,000, in the child tax credit, which benefits families with dependent children. The credit is not given to those who earn $110,000 or more a year.
The increase in the child credit was originally scheduled for 2010; the new tax-cut law makes it immediate but sets an expiration date of next year. If Congress does not act to make the increase permanent, the credit would fall to $700 in 2005. But lawmakers are widely expected to make the increase permanent before then.
Also included in the tax-cut package was a provision to make the child tax credit refundable so that some lower-income families who do not earn enough to owe income tax could still receive it. But the provision to widen eligibility for the credit - added by Lincoln before the Finance Committee approved the measure last month - was dropped by House-Senate negotiators before its final passage.
The Lincoln-Snowe measure would restore it and would pay for the change by closing corporate tax loopholes.
House Democrats introduced a version of the measure yesterday. They say they are eager to exploit the topic as proof of what Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic whip, called "the Republicans' misguided, cold-hearted agenda."
"We are going to talk about it as much as we can possibly talk about it," Hoyer said.