Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain will take a small step this week toward making peace with the Republican Party on the tax issue. He plans to vote for cloture to block a filibuster on the House-passed bill repealing the estate tax. McCain is certainly no convert to this staple of Republican orthodoxy, but at least he is not standing athwart his party's progress on an issue that its members consider vital.

 McCain is not merely voting for cloture to enable an up-or-down vote on the estate tax. He is ready to support a significant scaling down of what Republican regulars call the "death tax" that is being crafted by his conservative colleague from Arizona, Sen. Jon Kyl. While McCain's rhetoric against the very rich passing on their wealth still sounds Democratic, his vote this week will be Republican.

 The McCain problem is a major one for his party, and it is not because he would be a 72-year-old president if elected in 2008. He is the most broadly popular possible Republican candidate, whom Democrats despair of opposing and admit would demolish Hillary Clinton in a general election. Yet, his ability to win closed Republican primaries is questionable because of his apostasy on several issues -- especially tax reduction.

 When I asked McCain last week about his views on the estate tax, he made clear how opposed he is to repeal: "I follow the course of a great Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who talked about the malefactors of great wealth and gave us the estate tax. I oppose the rich passing on fortunes." That does not fit the basic Republican mindset that wealth should not be punished and that earnings should not be double-taxed.

 I then asked what he will do when the bill comes to the Senate floor after Labor Day. McCain told me he will vote for cloture. That is good news for anti-death tax lobbying organizations, who list McCain as an opponent.

 McCain also told me he looks to Kyl for a compromise short of total repeal. He added he could support Kyl's plan to keep the estate tax rate at the capital gains rate (currently 15 percent) with an exclusion from taxation of an estate's first $5 million -- compared with 55 percent and $1 million in the basic law. That could surprise fellow senators who never have considered McCain and Kyl the Arizona twins. It also might surprise Kyl, who never has conferred with McCain on the estate tax.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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