WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and Senate Republicans sounded their familiar battle cries of "soak the rich" and "no new taxes" yesterday as the Senate rejected a GOP alternative to Mr. Clinton's deficit reduction package.
The 55-43 vote along party lines that doomed the Republican proposal cleared the way for tonight's expected Senate approval of the Clinton deficit plan and ended another day-long duel for public opinion.
Both sides had their sights focused less on the Senate than on the audiences of the evening news and radio talk shows in the months ahead, when public attitudes about the deficit-cutting effort will affect not only the economy but the political fortunes of all involved.
"The Clinton plan is going to become law; we can't stop that," said a Senate Republican leadership aide. "The only real issue now is how it's going to be characterized." The Republicans, responding to Mr. Clinton's challenge to produce an alternative to his $516 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts, offered a $366 billion substitute they said would cut the deficit as much as the president's plan by putting caps on mandatory benefit programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, and requiring unspecified future spending cuts.
"It's a no-tax solution the taxpayers are rooting for today and tomorrow, hoping against hope that somehow President Clinton and his liberal majority on Capitol Hill will finally wake up and hear the cries from the real world for real change," Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas told his colleagues.
The Democrats used a procedural maneuver last night to block a direct vote on the GOP "tax-free" alternative, effectively killing it, but only after allowing a couple of hours of televised debate just in time to provide sound bites for the evening news.
Mr. Clinton and his Democratic allies charged that the Republicans were only trying to protect fat-cat constituents, who they said benefited from the "borrow and spend" policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations and should pick up most of the tab for paying down the deficit.
According to the latest Democratic estimates, 80 percent of the $267 billion in total tax increases would be paid by people earning $200,000 a year or more.
The GOP plan "is really nothing but a shield to keep the wealthiest Americans from paying their fair share even though their taxes went down for the last 12 years while the deficit exploded," Mr. Clinton told reporters in an impromptu Rose Garden appearance.
He called it "a real disservice to this country" that would also "punish the middle class and the most vulnerable."
There is little doubt that the Democratic package will be approved by a narrow margin in the Senate before being sent to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation.
The rhetoric yesterday was a reprise of the debate over the ill-fated 1990 budget agreement, a political specter that haunts this process, because its failure to boost the economy cost George Bush his presidency.
The Republicans, many of whom deserted Mr. Bush in his attempt to cut the deficit by raising taxes and reducing spending, claimed that raising taxes invariably leads to increased spending.
Just as in 1990, the Democrats say that "taxes are going to be used to narrow the deficit, but that has never happened in the history of this country," asserted Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
Limiting program growth
Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who leads his party on the Senate Budget Committee, argued that the GOP alternative is more effective in reducing the deficit because it limits the growth of the programs that are now driving the deficit.
"Higher taxes cannot control the growth of automatic spending," he said.
But the White House budget chief, Leon E. Panetta, who summoned reporters for a quick briefing on the GOP plan while it was being debated on the Senate floor, contended that the Republicans had not lived up to their promise to offer an equal alternative.
"The Republicans went eyeball-to-eyeball with the deficit, and they blinked," Mr. Panetta said.
The 1990 budget agreement, which was supposed to raise taxes by about $137 billion over five years and imposed $292 billion in cuts, failed to reduce the deficit partly because spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid grew much faster than expected. Income tax revenues also fell sharply because of the recession.
Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, noted that some of the same Republicans who criticized both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton for raising taxes to cut the deficit are the first to complain when spending cuts affect their pet projects.
High on his list was Sen. Phil Gramm, a die-hard budget-cutter from Texas, who is also the chief proponent of the superconducting supercollider, an $8 billion facility under construction in his state.
Tax break put back