Internet giant eBay led the fight against the bill in the Senate, along with lawmakers from states with no sales tax and several prominent anti-tax groups. The bill's opponents say it would put an expensive obligation on small businesses because they are not as equipped as national merchandisers to collect and remit sales taxes at the multitude of state rates.
Businesses with less than $1 million in online sales would be exempt. EBay wants to exempt businesses with up to $10 million in sales or fewer than 50 employees.
"The contentious debate in the Senate shows that a lot more work needs to be done to get the Internet sales tax issue right, including ensuring that small businesses using the Internet are protected from new burdens that harm their ability to compete and grow," said Brian Bieron, eBay's senior director of global public policy.
Some states have sales taxes as high as 7 percent, plus city and county taxes that can push the combined rate even higher.
Many governors — Republicans and Democrats — have been lobbying the federal government for years for the authority to collect sales taxes from online sales.
The issue is getting bigger for states as more people make purchases online. Last year, Internet sales in the U.S. totaled $226 billion, up nearly 16 percent from the previous year, according to government estimates.
States lost a total of $23 billion last year because they couldn't collect taxes on out-of-state sales, according to a study done for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has lobbied for the bill. About half of that was lost from Internet sales; half from purchases made through catalogs, mail orders and telephone orders, the study said.
Supporters say the bill makes it relatively easy for Internet retailers to comply. States must provide free computer software to help retailers calculate sales taxes, based on where shoppers live. States must also establish a single entity to receive Internet sales tax revenue, so retailers don't have to send it to individual counties or cities.
Opponents worry the bill would give states too much power to reach across state lines to enforce their tax laws. States could audit out-of-state businesses, impose liens on their property and, ultimately, sue them in state court.
Associated Press reporter Andrew Miga contributed to this report.
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