WASHINGTON -- A growing number of Republicans, worried that a broad 10 percent income tax cut isn't politically possible, are working on alternatives that include eliminating the "marriage penalty" quirk that makes millions of two-income married couples pay more than if they were unmarried.
From conservatives like Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma to moderates like Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Republicans are looking for a less expensive tax cut that would have a better chance of passing before the 2000 congressional campaigns.
"You have to ask yourself: Do you want to attempt something that may not be attainable, thereby deflating your supporters?" Largent said.
Republicans are determined to use for tax relief some of the projected $2.56 trillion budget surplus over the next decade, although most agree with President Clinton that 62 percent of the surplus should go to keep Social Security solvent. The fight will come over what to do with the rest.
The 10 percent income tax cut enjoyed a boomlet of support when the new Congress convened last month. Now Republicans see several drawbacks.
The broad cut is expensive, at an estimated $743 billion over 10 years, and President Clinton is likely to threaten a veto as Democrats pound home their claim that it primarily benefits the wealthy. Such a fight could have a major impact on 2000 races, with control of the House hanging in the balance.
Fixing the marriage penalty, in contrast, enjoys broad support within the GOP and among many Democrats. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., symbolically gave this year's bill the number H.R. 6 to show it is a top priority.
"I don't sense overwhelming support for a 10 percent reduction in rates," said Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., a main sponsor of the marriage penalty measure. "The best way is a more targeted approach. Taxpayers find targeted tax cuts tangible. They can relate to it."
The marriage penalty strikes an estimated 21 million two-income couples, many firmly in the middle class, who pay an average of $1,400 more in income taxes than they would if single.
Bills drafted by Weller and Johnson -- both members of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee -- would fix this problem by giving married couples who file jointly a standard deduction equal to twice the $4,250 now available for singles.
Had the change been made for 1998, it would have meant $1,400 more for married couples. The measure would cost roughly $28 billion over five years.
For Republicans, the legislation has the added attraction of broad support from key social conservative groups, many of which are frustrated by the GOP's inability to enact such priorities as a ban on partial-birth abortions.
Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, which represents 40,000 churches, said marriage penalty relief not only cuts taxes but makes a strong pro-family statement instead of discouraging couples from tying the knot.
"The marriage penalty is morally wrong," Sheldon said. "It's our top priority."
To be sure, Republicans are far from giving up on the 10 percent income-tax reduction. The chairmen of the two budget committees, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, are likely to include versions in spending blueprints Congress will consider this spring.
But those blueprints aren't binding, and the real heavy lifting on tax cuts will occur later in the Ways and Means Committee and in the Senate Finance Committee.
The legislation circulated by Johnson and supported by 11 other House GOP moderates that includes marriage penalty relief would also raise the outside earnings limit for Social Security recipients, accelerate full tax deductibility of health insurance premiums for self-employed people and enact tax breaks for long-term care and affordable housing.
The measure is similar in many ways to the five-year, $80 billion tax relief package passed last fall by the House but never taken up by the Senate. This year's version would cost about $100 billion over five years.
Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has not yet signaled which way he will go. But like most Republicans, Archer is committed to significant tax relief.
"I don't think there's any big controversy," Archer, R-Texas, said. "We've just got to work through this."