WASHINGTON - Whether it was $500 billion or 6.5 cents, numbers preoccupied the tax bill conferees last week.

But all along, the only really important number was 50: The minimum number of votes needed in the Senate to approve the measure.

As tax conferees began hammering out the final version of President Clinton's budget and tax package two weeks ago, tax aides and lobbyists predicted that the final bill would look more like the Senate version than the House version.

Why? Because the Senate leadership knows that they can never keep their razor-thin margin of victory - 50 to 49, with a tie broken by Vice President Al Gore - if the final bill looks too much like the House version.

The House approved President Clinton's plan for a new tax on the heat content of fuels that would have raised $70 billion over five years. The Senate abandoned that Btu tax in favor of a 4.3-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal transportation fuels tax. The Senate proposal would raise only about $22 billion over five years.

As lobbyists and reporters scrambled to stake out one closed-door negotiating session after another, it became apparent that the tax talks had come down to a big juggling act. Conferees were trying to figure out what tax increase they could safely put in the bill before losing too many votes in the Senate, and how much they could afford to spend on tax incentives.

Left hanging were tax incentives of importance to the municipal bond market, including enterprise zones and extensions of the authority to issue mortgage revenue bonds and small-issue industrial development bonds, which expired June 30, 1992.

With plenty of money to spend, the House proposed permanent extensions, and a generous package of incentives for enterprise zones. With nearly $50 billion less to spend, the Senate declined to offer an enterprise zone proposal, and proposed extending the bond exemptions only through June 30, 1994.

In trying to arrive at a figure for revenue raisers, the conferees fixated on the fuels tax because it became the only number they could adjust. They were hemmed in by two other apparently nonnegotiable numbers.

The first was the level of deficit reduction to be achieved by enacting the package. President Clinton has said all along he wants $500 billion in deficit reductions.

As the tax bill conferees began to meet, observers said that administration officials were suggesting that the deficit reduction number could be ratcheted down as far as $485 billion without the President losing face. At $485 billion, Clinton could still say the level of deficit reduction in the package was the largest in U.S. history. But by all accounts House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., dug his heels in at $500 billion.

The second number that seemed set in stone from the outset was the increase in the top corporate income tax rate. Both the House and Senate had approved increasing the 34% rate to 35%. Some senators, most notably Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., were pushing for an increase to 36% as an alternative to any form of energy tax.

But there too, Rostenkowski insisted on going no higher than 35%. The 35% rate, in fact, was one of the first items the conferees formally agreed to.

Where Rostenkowski did cave in early was on the Btu tax. Early last week, Rostenkowski told Senate conferees that the House negotiators would abandon the Btu tax and instead propose a 9-cent increase in the transportation fuels tax. That's when the serious haggling began.

Nine cents quickly dropped to 6.5 cents when the Senate leadership realized that there would be too many defections from the Democratic ranks if the fuels tax increase stayed at the level proposed by Rostenkowski.

In the best tradition of Henry Kissinger, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., practiced shuttle diplomacy throughout Wednesday and Thursday, moving back and forth between his Senate conferees and Rostenkowski trying to determine if a 6.5 cents increase would fly.

But even at that level - a mere 2.2 cents above what the Senate had proposed - some Democratic senators still threatened to break ranks and vote against the bill. Even a single defection could mean a defeat.

By by late Thursday night, the conferees had come full circle, and a weary Moynihan broke the news to the group of reporters and lobbyists huddled outside his meeting room. "Probably the Senate gas tax [of 4.3 cents] is where we'll end up," Moynihan said.

So throw out your old math books. In the Senate equation, it looks as if 4.3 = 50.

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