President Bush urged the U.S. House to follow the Senate by acting to prevent 23 million households from having to pay the alternative minimum tax this year.
"Now it's up to the House of Representatives to move the bill," Bush said in his weekly radio address. Action is needed before adjournment this month "to protect millions of families from higher taxes and avert any further delay in the tax refund checks next year," he said.
The Senate voted Thursday to block the increase, sending the measure to the House. Shielding households from higher taxes will cost the government about $51 billion in lost income to the Treasury, adding to the deficit. A proposal to offset that cost with a tax increase on executives at private equity firms and hedge funds, was stripped out of the Senate bill after Republicans opposed it.
The alternative minimum tax was designed to make sure the wealthy paid some tax, but it wasn't indexed for inflation. As a result of rising incomes, the tax reaches further into the middle class this year, and some families may have to pay an extra $2,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, on average, the Treasury Department said.
"This is a huge tax increase that taxpayers do not deserve and that Congress must stop," Bush said.
The president also used his radio address to tout steps he and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson took to avoid home-loan foreclosures.
The three-part plan calls for freezing rates on some loans for five years, or refinancing loans of some borrowers into a new private mortgage or a Federal Housing Administration-backed loan. As many as 1.2 million subprime borrowers with adjustable rates will be eligible for help out of 1.8 million subprime borrowers facing higher rates.
The deal was hammered out this week among lenders, loan servicers, investors and mortgage counselors "without taxpayer subsidies or government mandates," the president said.
"Lenders are already refinancing and modifying mortgages on a case-by-case basis," Bush said. The government established a hotline for people who may be eligible for relief. The number is 1-888-995-HOPE.
To help clean up home-loan practices, federal regulators are taking steps to make the mortgage industry more transparent, reliable and fair, Bush said.
"Our goal is to ensure that homeowners receive complete, accurate, and understandable information about their mortgages."
Bush also urged Congress to help the housing market by streamlining the Federal Housing Administration, overhauling the tax code to help homeowners refinance during a time of market stress, fund a mortgage counseling program and strengthen the independent regulation of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, government-chartered mortgage finance companies that are the largest sources of money for U.S. home loans.