House, Senate approve tax cuts

GOP-backed package survives close votes

selling effort begins

Clinton repeats opposition

August 06, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led Congress narrowly approved last night the first major tax cut in two decades, then went home to try to sell the sweeping $792 billion measure to their wary constituents before President Clinton can veto it.

Acting within hours of each other, the House and Senate passed the bill with only a handful of votes to spare before leaving for a monthlong summer recess.

"American taxpayers have won a battle today," said Sen. Don Nickles, the Senate Republican whip, after the Senate voted 50-49 for the measure. "The rest is up to the president. I urge him to take a closer look at the details and reconsider his stated intention to veto this responsible, fair plan."

Designed as the Republican approach for using a projected $2.9 trillion budget surplus, the measure would reduce individual income tax rates at every level by 1 percentage point.

Lower-income taxpayers would receive their breaks first. But over the full 10 years of the plan, 60 percent of the total in rate reductions would go to most affluent 10 percent of taxpayers. One-fourth of the total would go to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

"The fundamental question before Congress is simple: Is it right for Washington to take from the taxpayer more money than is necessary to run the government?" said Sen. William V. Roth Jr., the Delaware Republican who is chairman of the Finance Committee. "We believe government is not automatically entitled to the surplus that is, in large part, due to the hard work, thrift and risk-taking of the American people."

The House voted 221 to 206 in favor of the measure, with five Democrats joining the Republican majority. Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County was one of only four House Republicans to vote against the bill.

"It's exceeding unrealistic," Morella said, echoing the view of many Democratic opponents that the tax cut depends on a surplus that might never materialize, partly because of spending cuts that might never be made. She observed that Congress is already having trouble meeting this year's spending needs.

Democrats went further.

`Reckless and irresponsible'

"It's reckless and irresponsible," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. "Democrats are for a tax cut, but not this one."

The prospects for an eventual deal between the White House and congressional leaders remained unclear last night as both sides said they would hold fast to their positions.

Republican lawmakers promised a monthlong, nationwide blitz of television appearances, town meetings, online chats and other publicity events to try to acquaint voters with the details of their proposal. They won't send the measure to Clinton until Congress reconvenes in September.

But the president made clear that he would not wait until the bill arrives at his desk to denounce it and renew his vow to veto it. Yesterday, he came to the lawmakers' home turf on Capitol Hill to issue an emotional appeal to Americans to resist the temptation of tax breaks until "we deal with the big challenges first."

Referring specifically to his own baby boom generation, Clinton said: "We're about to be tested. We have the opportunity of a lifetime. What we do with [the surplus] will determine the shape of America for decades to come."

The president has agreed to a tax cut of about $300 billion. But he wants to put more surplus money aside to shore up Social Security and Medicare and get "America out of debt for the first time since 1835 so our children can have a good economy, too."

Rounding up support

Republican leaders had worked frantically to ensure enough votes from members of their own party to pass the bill. Senate moderates were particularly troublesome. Four ended up voting against the measure along with all four Senate Democrats who had supported an earlier version.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who had been wavering, agreed to provide the deciding vote after the bill was adjusted to provide $4.2 million in additional relief for the working poor, through the earned income tax credit and an expansion of the credit for dependent care.

"They had to break arms and break legs just to get it through," Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, said of the Republican leaders. Offers were also made to Breaux, who had voted for the version of the bill that earlier passed the Senate. But to no avail.

"They didn't put enough in it for me," he joked before rejecting the measure because he said the price tag was too high.

Republican leaders acknowledged that their victory was bittersweet. They had expected to be celebrating their success in delivering the first major tax cut since the era of Ronald Reagan and underscoring the issue that they believe best defines their party.

Instead, they face not only a presidential veto but what polls suggest is a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the voters. Many surveys indicate that voters would prefer to save the money from any budget surplus for government programs, particularly Social Security and Medicare.

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