WASHINGTON - Legislation to repeal federal estate taxes moved a step closer to becoming law Tuesday with a Senate decision to speed up the voting process.

The Senate voted 99-1 for the Death Tax Elimination Act, a bill widely supported by bankers and industry trade groups, to bypass the Senate Finance Committee and go directly to the floor. The Senate is expected to approve the bill Thursday.

The legislation would gradually phase out estate taxes from the highest rate of 55% in 5-percentage-point increments over 10 years. Proponents claim repealing the estate tax would let small-business owners avoid an unfair burden. Both the American Bankers Association and the Independent Community Bankers of America support the bill, claiming a benefit for both bank owners and customers. The House approved the same bill in early June.

Similar legislation stalled last year, but today's huge budget surplus could persuade lawmakers that the time is right to dump the unpopular tax.

President Clinton opposes the bill, but with bipartisan support lawmakers could override his expected veto. The administration has proposed narrower estate tax relief for small businesses and farmers.

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