WASHINGTON -- President Bush, whose "no new taxes" campaign pledge fell victim to a deficit-reduction compromise, took up the cause again yesterday in a new version: no more new taxes.
"I made one compromise to try to get a budget agreement that . . . I felt was essential," Mr. Bush said. But that's the end of it, he declared in decidedly testy terms.
In a direct challenge to Democratic leaders who are talking about returning next year with a proposal to impose an income surtax on the very rich, Mr. Bush insisted that they would have to do it "over my dead veto. Because it ain't going to happen, I'll guarantee you."
The loss of Republican seats in the House and Senate in the midterm elections Tuesday has weakened Mr. Bush's bargaining position with the Democratic majority in Congress. But the president said he was determined to hold out for legislation, on civil rights and other issues as well as taxes, that met his agenda.
In some cases, Mr. Bush said, he would "be appealing strongly for Democratic support, and in some I'm going to use the veto so as to stop a lot of bad things from happening to this country."
The president was blamed by many Republicans for their poor showing in Tuesday's elections because he reneged on his "no new taxes" campaign pledge of 1988, and part of his mission in meeting with reporters yesterday appeared to be damage control.
"I got the message; I had the message long before America went to the polls," he said. "People feel that they're taxed too much."
The president said he was forced to accept $137 billion worth of income, gasoline, cigarette, liquor and other tax increases because the Democrats would not agree to deeper spending cuts, and he felt he had to compromise for the sake of the weakening economy.
The economic slowdown was still a matter of great concern, he said, and would be the subject of special White House briefings over the next few days.
"But I want to be on the side of no tax increases," the president said. "We're going to go right to bat again in the Congress on that."
Political analysts were skeptical yesterday that Mr. Bush could regain his innocence on the tax issue. But administration officials noted that this was a "no new tax" promise that Mr. Bush would find easier to keep -- at least through 1992, when he is expected to make a bid for re-election.
The five-year, $492 billion budget package enacted by Congress is structured so that it won't be necessary to find new revenue sources during that period unless the economy plunges much more dramatically than expected.
And there is believed to be little stomach left in Congress for pushing Mr. Bush into a new round of budget talks.
But the Democratic plan being promoted by House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., is to slap a surtax on people making more than $1 million a year and redistribute those revenues through some kind of a tax break for the middle class.
If Mr. Bush rejected such a proposal, he would be "vetoing fairness," Mr. Gephardt charged yesterday.
Thus, there is a potential for Mr. Bush and the new Congress to be locked in a game of slamming political slogans back and forth along with a tax bill as the next presidential race begins.
Democrats believe they can win such a contest by portraying Mr. Bush and the Republicans as protectors of the rich, at the expense of working people. The president is betting that Americans don't support tax increases of any kind.