The ongoing soap opera of the auto bailout continues, with Congress failing to find a means of balancing the needs of Detroit with the concerns of taxpayers and Senate Republicans. As a result, the bailout stalled in the Senate last week and the Administration appears poised to step in and use whatever authority it has — TARP, Treasury, Fed — to provide the companies with the liquidity necessary to survive into the New Year and the next Administration. A nice little Christmas present for the Obama economic team, indeed.

Whatever happens, what is clear is that the plight of Detroit will continue into next year and will provide yet another catalyst for a major stimulus package early next Congress. Just how early may surprise folks.

The Senate Finance Committee reportedly plans to begin formal consideration of a stimulus package January 8th, twelve days before President-elect Obama is sworn in. According to our friends at Dow Jones:

The package is expected to include between $600 billion and $700 billion to jump-start the economy, and congressional leaders say they want to pass it before President-elect Barack Obama takes office Jan. 20.

For those of us focused on the tax code, that means the next vehicle for tax provisions will be drafted over the next couple weeks. How much of the package will be devoted to tax relief?

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in a news conference last week that tax cuts for businesses and individuals could comprise as much as half of the package. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday estimated the tax portion of the package at closer to one-third.

With that time table in mind and with tax policies on the table, we’re working with our allies on the Hill to ensure that S corporation changes to the built-in gains rules are considered as part of this package. If the economy needs capital, S corporations are sitting on lots of it, and BIG relief would help put it to work. Our Hill champions are working the issue, armed with a letter from our association allies as well as a statement of support from four Senators to their leadership.

New Taxwriters Selected

The combination of Democratic gains and lots of retirees means the Ways and Means Committee will be welcoming at least eleven new faces when it reconvenes for the 111th Congress. Democratic gains shifted the ratio of the overall House close to two-thirds/one third, so Democrats last week set the new ratio of Members on the Committee at 26 Democrats to 15 Republicans — up from 24-17 in the 110th Congress — and selected four of the five new members necessary to fill the seats. New Democratic Members include:

Rep. Danny Davis (IL)

Rep. Bob Etheridge (NC)

Rep. John Yarmuth (KY)

Rep. Brian Higgins (NY)

Note: One of the seats was offered to Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ) but apparently he turned it down, so an additional name will have to be selected. On the Republican side, Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) was selected Ranking Member following the retirement of current Ranking Member Jim McCrery (R-LA). Republicans did not make any other committee membership decisions but rather put off the appointment of six new members to fill the vacancies when Congress returns in January.

On the Senate side, the report is the same as just after the election, with leadership waiting to see how the election in Minnesota goes before setting committee ratios and picking new members. One new development is President Obama’s selection of Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) to be Secretary of Interior.  His departure from the Finance Committee means Democrats will likely have two new members on the committee next year rather than just one.

Estate Tax Update

We’ve forecast that one of the few tax challenges likely to get addressed in 2009 will be some sort of deal on the estate tax. As readers know, the estate tax is scheduled to go out of existence in 2010 only to return from the grave the following year, looking very much like the youthful and hungry estate tax of the year 2000. This repeal and restoration routine gives both sides a strong incentive to come to a compromise — estate tax apologists don’t want to face its repeal in 2010 and estate tax critics don’t want to see its resurrection in 2011.

We noticed that Len Burman over at the left-leaning Tax Policy Center agrees. In an open letter to President-elect Obama, he raises the red flag over the pending estate tax repeal from the pro-estate tax perspective:

One more thing. You probably want to fix the estate tax before the end of 2009. Otherwise, the tax disappears for only a year in 2010, returning in full force in 2011. We just don’t want to see how greedy potential heirs would respond to the incentives created by a one-year “death tax” holiday.

Yeah, Len just wants to make the world safe from greedy heirs. Thanks. Setting aside the obvious question of who’s greedier — individuals with money or policy makers who want to take it from them — his point just reinforces our notion that the estate tax is going to be front and center of policymakers come next summer.