Swiss-U.S. Tax Deal Clears First Hurdle

Swiss lawmakers agreed on Wednesday to consider a bill that would let the country's banks sidestep strict secrecy laws to end a long-running United States tax probe, rejecting calls for the legislation to be killed.

Five months after U.S. action over tax evasion led to the closure of Switzerland's oldest private bank, and with formal investigations under way into some of its biggest institutions, the Swiss government wants a compromise to end threats of criminal charges that have hurt a vital national industry.

Switzerland's upper house voted 24 to 20, with one abstention, to debate a bill that would allow banks to hand over information to U.S. authorities, with a vote on the legislation due later on Wednesday.

The vote clears only a minor hurdle to securing the parliamentary backing that the draft law needs. Opposition to the draft law has been vocal from left to right as lawmakers chafe at what some call U.S. blackmail and is likely to face even stiffer opposition in the lower house, which is due to debate the legislation next week..

Many parliamentarians have resisted approving a repeat of a deal struck in 2009 for UBS, which paid a $780 million fine and handed over more than 4,000 client names after admitting it had helped Americans to cheat on their taxes.