RENO - Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., were part of a losing effort Thursday to override President Clinton's veto of a bill to abolish inheritance taxes.
By a vote of 274-157 vote, the House fell 14 short of the necessary two-thirds margin to override the veto.
Thirteen Democrats who voted for the bill earlier, switched sides to help uphold the veto.
But Berkley broke from party ranks again and was among the 53 Democrats who voted with all but one Republican to override the veto.
The debate was full of political overtones sure to spill over into the fall elections.
''If the American people really want this tax relief, we need a Republican Congress with a Republican president who will sign it,'' said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, framing the campaign issue for the GOP.
Gibbons said the so-called ''death tax'' is ''the most onerous tax on the books today.
''Nevadans should not have to pay taxes on their farms, ranches and small businesses when they have already paid taxes on them throughout their lives,'' he said.
''Unfortunately, the Clinton-Gore Administration and many of their friends in the House failed to put their partisan politics aside to help Nevada's hard-working families,'' he said.
Clinton praised the vote, calling the repeal bill ''a huge tax cut for the most well-off Americans'' that threatened the nation's economic health and critical government programs.
''If the congressional leadership is serious about estate tax relief for small businesses, family farms, and principal residences of middle-class families that have increased in value, they should work with me in a fiscally responsible manner as Democrats in Congress have proposed,'' Clinton said.
But GOP sponsors said they would settle for nothing less than full repeal.
''There is only one way to rid the code of this immoral, unfair and economically unsound tax, and that's to eliminate it,'' said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash.
Even though a clear House majority favored repeal and polls show many Americans believe the tax is inherently unfair, Democrats said just as many people want Congress to focus on paying down public debt, improving education and creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Democrats also portrayed the 10-year, $105 billion bill as a giveaway to wealthy families - only about 2 percent of estates owe the tax each year - and only one part of a huge GOP tax cut that would consume too much of the projected budget surplus.
''Never have so many spent so much time to give so much money to so very few,'' said House Minority Whip David Bonior, D-Mich.
Republicans countered that the veto by Clinton, and by extension Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, was another signal that Democrats want to spend the surplus on more federal government programs instead of returning a portion to taxpayers. Republican nominee George W. Bush favors repealing the estate tax.
''I say to the president: This veto does not mean that money is now available for Washington spending,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. ''We will not use it to expand government.''
Sponsors also took issue with the Democratic characterization of the estate tax as primarily benefitting the rich, contending that it forces millions of middle-class people to spend thousands of dollars on insurance and estate planning and threatens jobs of people when businesses and farms are broken up to pay the tax.
''The death tax has given purgatory a new meaning,'' said Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. ''Death as an event should not trigger a tax.''
Clinton and Gore both called wavering Democrats to shore up support for the veto, House aides said.
One Democrat who switched his vote, Rep. Sam Farr of California, said he originally backed the repeal in hopes it would lead to a good-faith attempt at compromise with the White House.
''You're more interested in a political message than you are in solving the problem,'' Farr told Republicans on the House floor.
Next week, the House will decide whether to sustain the president's veto of the 10-year, $292 billion marriage penalty tax cut. Like the estate tax repeal, 53 House Democrats voted for the marriage penalty tax cut. That veto is also expected to be sustained.
Congress has tried nine previous times to override a Clinton veto since Republicans took power in 1995. Four overrides have won House approval but only two vetoes - on budget line-item vetoes and securities litigation reform - were successfully overridden by both the House and Senate as required to enact the vetoed measures.