WASHINGTON - U.S. House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said the chamber will vote this week to permanently extend the estate tax rates scheduled to expire at the end of 2009.

The House will take up a bill introduced by Democrat Earl Pomeroy last week to extend the current policy of taxing estates over a $3.5 million threshold at a rate of 45 percent.

We are going to permanently fix the estate tax, Steny Hoyer, the chamber's majority leader, told reporters. We believe that a permanent extension of the existing law is the best policy.

A 10-year extension of the tax would cost an estimated $234 billion versus allowing the tax to revert to a higher rate, according to congressional aides.

Federal estate taxes are due to go to zero next year under current law unless Congress acts. After that, the tax roars back to life, with an exemption of $1 million for individuals and a tax rate of 55 percent.

On the Senate side, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has proposed extending the current 2009 law and indexing it to inflation. But the fate of that proposal is unclear, given the Senate's focus on healthcare and limited days in the legislative calendar.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan, writing by Julie Vorman; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)