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Obama weighing options to stop corporate tax flight

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is weighing plans to circumvent Congress and act on its own to curtail tax benefits for U.S. companies that relocate overseas to lower their tax bills, seeking to stanch a recent wave of so-called corporate inversions, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said Tuesday.

Treasury Department officials are rushing to assemble a broad array of options that would “change the economics of inversions,” Lew said. Options are still being developed although no final decision has been made about whether to go forward with administrative action to strip away tax incentives for the deals.

The action comes in the face of a recent increase in U.S. companies reaching deals to reorganize overseas, creating an explosive political issue that Obama has seized on to talk about a lack of “economic patriotism.” Investment banks have been counseling companies to pursue such transactions because of the potential tax benefits. Two large U.S. pharmaceutical companies – the drug giant AbbVie, based in Illinois, and the generic manufacturer Mylan, based in Pennsylvania – agreed to such deals last month, and Walgreen, owner of the drugstore chain, is considering one.

“Time is of the essence,” Lew said in an interview. “We are looking at a very long list of possible ways to address the issue.”

It would be the latest move by the Obama administration to sidestep congressional gridlock and move on a top domestic priority. The president included a provision in his budget proposal this year that would have effectively banned inversions, and Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation to halt or suspend them. Still, while some Republicans say they want to address the issue, there has been little bipartisan agreement about how to do so.

While Lew said he believed legislation was the “best solution” for addressing the issue, the recent flood of inversions has persuaded Obama’s team that quicker action may be necessary.

“If we have to wait for what is the likely period of time before business tax reform can be enacted,” he said, “I think we’re all going to regret the number of inversions that have occurred in the interim.”

Merely by signaling the possible action, Lew seemed to be working to influence companies that might be considering an inversion to reconsider.

“My goal is actually to change what’s happening out there,” Lew said. “Putting companies on notice is, I think, part of it.”

Tuesday morning, a group of Democratic Senate leaders called on Obama to go around Congress and act on his own to curtail tax benefits for U.S. companies that relocate overseas, warning that billions of dollars in tax revenue can be lost if he fails to act.

“The coming flood of corporate inversions justifies immediate executive action,” says the letter, spearheaded by Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, and signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

If Obama decided to act, there could be at least some retroactive effect because he could place new limits on the transactions of inverted companies. Inversions could still go through, but depending on when new rules were issued, the tax strategies that made the mergers seem lucrative might be severely limited.

Lew said at a conference in New York last month that he did not believe he had the power to act alone on the issue. But Obama recently delivered a speech decrying inversions, and administration officials had been evaluating the legality of unilaterally limiting them.

“They’re looking at what they can do on their own,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an interview last week. “They want to do it. The president really dislikes the inversions, and if they feel they have a strong legal ability to do it, they will.”

Lew wrote to lawmakers last month urging them to take action on the issue, and soon after, the president made it a centerpiece of a speech in Los Angeles about what he called “economic patriotism.”

“I don’t care if it’s legal. It’s wrong,” the president said of inversions at the time. “You shouldn’t get to call yourself an American company only when you want a handout from the American taxpayers.”