A Republican-led effort to permanently repeal the estate tax garnered only 39 votes in the Senate, as the motion failed during debate on extending jobless benefits.
Estate-tax votes are closely watched since they occur infrequently, and opponents of the tax and its supporters seek to gain ground among lawmakers.
The motion from Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), fell on a 39-59 vote. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio—voted to oppose repeal.
Senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska—supported the repeal effort.
Under the 2001 tax cut law, the estate tax was repealed for one year only in 2010. Heirs of those who die this year are not subject to any federal estate tax, although they must pay a capital gains tax when they sell inherited assets.