WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bucking the adage about nothing being certain but death and taxes, business and conservative interests are pushing for relief from the tax most associated with death _ the estate tax. And prospects in the new Congress have improved.

Separate proposals by Senate Republicans and Democrats as well as the Clinton administration face stiff competition for scarce tax-cut dollars. There is talk of a per-child tax credit, a capital gains tax cut and expanded Individual Retirement Accounts.

Nevertheless, estate tax relief received a boost when Senate Majority Trent Lott, R-Miss., included an $18.6 billion reduction over five years in the symbolically important first 10 bills introduced this year.

Defenders of the estate tax point to its turn-of-the-century roots in reformers' desire to break up the concentrated wealth of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and other moneyed families. And they say the current exemption of all estates valued under $600,000 means that all but the richest 1.2 percent of estates owe the federal government nothing.

But there are concerns that the estate tax is leading to a loss of family-owned farms and small businesses.

Advocates of a cut _ which now can go to as high as 55 percent of the value of the largest estates _ say the levy is fundamentally unfair. ``Confiscatory'' is the word Lott uses. It allows conglomerates to gobble up family businesses from cash-strapped heirs, critics say.

C.L. Tart, a 62-year-old Dunn, N.C., farmer and shopping mall owner, said he worked 20-hour days and borrowed heavily to hold onto the family business when his grandfather and father died in the 1960s and hopes to spare his own son, Clarence L. Tart III, 34, the same ordeal.

``It's a terrible thing for the next generation to feel like they have a loaded gun at their temple as soon as my heart stops beating,'' he said.

House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, said it was too soon to say whether estate-tax changes would fit into the budget. ``I'm not even thinking that far down the line,'' he said.

But because President Clinton and Senate Democrats have their own proposals _ though far more modest than the Senate Republican plan _ there's a good chance of a compromise by the end of the year.

``Both parties recognize the importance of ... maintaining family farms and small businesses ... and we hope to find a way to do that,'' said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

The GOP estate tax cut is three times larger than the $6 billion package included in the balanced budget vetoed by Clinton in 1995. The Republican plan would gradually raise the floor on estate values subject to tax, from $600,000 to $1 million, in $50,000 annual increments.

It also would help family owned businesses and farms by exempting from taxation the first $1.5 million in assets and halving the tax on the value greater than that. And it would allow whatever tax is assessed on family-owned businesses and farms to be paid over 24 years, up from the 14 years in current law.

Bob Packwood, now a lobbyist after resigning from the Senate in 1995, is advising lumber and other interests pushing for an outright repeal of the estate tax.

The Republican former Oregon senator and Finance Committee chairman moderated a Dec. 10 meeting in a high-ceilinged room, several steps from the Senate floor. At that meeting, Lott told lobbyists he favored repeal but advised them to be ready to accept something less.

However, the Packwood-led interests, organized under the name, American Business is Local Enterprise, or ABLE, haven't given up on repeal. Packwood said a ``groundswell from the bottom up'' may yet persuade lawmakers.

``This is my bones speaking,'' he said in an interview. ``There's a growing movement in the country that finds the death tax, the estate tax, somehow unfair. You pay your taxes all of your life, you don't cheat, you're an honest citizen and then when you die the government imposes a higher rate than you've ever paid in your life.''

Clinton last year proposed expanding eligibility for the existing program, which permits heirs of family-owned businesses up to 14 years to pay. It would have shaved only about $1 billion over six years from estate tax collections, which are expected to reach $17 billion this year.

Senate Democrats would go a bit further, excluding the first $900,000 of the value of a family owned farm or business from an estate, in addition to the standard $600,000 exemption.

But liberals criticize the failure of any of the plans to address the proliferation of escape hatches _ such as sophisticated trust arrangements _ that allow many well-off estates to escape the tax.

``The problem with the tax is ... its application is very uneven,'' said tax economist Max Sawicky of the labor-financed Economic Policy Institute. ``If you reform it the right way, it would be possible to lower the rate without losing money.''