Budget surplus, tax cuts fuel GOP's final debate in Iowa

Bush, McCain spar over spending for Medicare and Social Security

January 16, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- Republican front-runner George W. Bush tangled with challenger John McCain yesterday over dividing up the federal budget surplus as the six GOP candidates held their final debate before next week's Iowa caucuses.

The exchanges between the leading Republican contenders closely tracked the debate on the Democratic side between Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley, suggesting that the issue of what to do with the surplus will be a major focus of this year's general election campaign.

Bush, who enjoys a big lead in the latest Hawkeye State polls, is making tax cuts a central element of his candidacy as he tries to rally the Republican Party's conservative base.

Competing priorities

The Texas governor wants to slash taxes across the board by $483 billion over five years. McCain, his main rival, is proposing a smaller, $237 billion cut, in order to use most of the surplus for debt reduction and additional spending for Social Security and Medicare.

Yesterday, Bush claimed that McCain would impose a $40 billion tax increase on workers by eliminating tax breaks for employers who provide education, transportation, vision care and other fringe benefits.

"Why would you say to a single mom that she would have to pay taxes on those benefits?" Bush asked during a 90-minute debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register.

McCain responded that his plan would give tax relief "to the people who need it most," particularly lower- and middle-income taxpayers. He noted that, by contrast, more than one-third of Bush's tax cut would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of American families.

McCain criticized Bush's economic plan for failing to address the problems of Medicare and Social Security, which are expected to require additional funding to remain solvent.

In the Democratic contest, Gore has used similar terms in attacking Bradley's ambitious health care plan and accusing his rival of not reserving any of the surplus for other spending needs.

Bush is proposing "not one penny" in additional spending on the "ticking time bomb" of Social Security or for Medicare or retiring the national debt, said McCain, who used a Texasism to describe the governor's proposal as "all hat and no cattle."

"That's cute," replied Bush, after a pause.

"You know they're always cutest when they're true," retorted McCain. He warned that policy makers should not count on predictions that future budget surpluses will be adequate to protect the solvency of the two main government programs for seniors, Social Security and Medicare.

"Let's not do the Texas two-step here," said McCain, an Arizona senator who has not actively campaigned for the Jan. 24 caucuses in Iowa and is pinning his long-shot hopes on a victory in the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

Bush argued that if the budget surplus isn't returned to the taxpayers, Congress would spend it on "bigger government and more programs." He said that the "best way to reduce the fat in Washington" and keep the economy growing is to send the money "back to the people who pay the taxes, and that's exactly what I intend to do."

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch criticized both men, saying that Bush's tax plan doesn't go far enough, because it leaves the Internal Revenue Service intact, and as for McCain's proposal, "by gosh, Al Gore and Bill Bradley already love" it.

Wealthy publisher Steve Forbes, running a distant second here, also dismissed Bush and McCain as "timid tax-cutters." Forbes said the Texas tax cuts that Bush is promoting heavily in his campaign are "more apparent than real" and predicted that the same thing would happen on the federal level if Bush were elected.

To Forbes' charge that most Texans never felt they got a tax cut, Bush replied that the people of his state had said, "You're the man," by re-electing him in a landslide.

Then, referring to Forbes' all-out negative ad campaign against Bob Dole in 1996, Bush added, his voice rising: "If you're going to talk about a man's record, talk about the whole record. I cut taxes."

Ad critical of Forbes

In post-debate comments, Forbes shrugged off a veiled attack on his candidacy by Dole, in an ad published in yesterday's Des Moines Register. In an "open letter" to Iowa Republicans, Dole, whose wife is actively campaigning here for Bush, warned that Forbes may be in the process of repeating the "distorted negative television political ads" that he ran here four years ago.

Describing Forbes only as "the perpetrator," Dole said those attack ads "were a major factor" in Dole's defeat in the general election. Forbes has recently been running ads that accuse Bush of breaking a 1994 campaign promise not to raise taxes in Texas.

"I think the American people want an open and honest debate," Forbes told reporters. He said Republicans lost in 1992 and 1996, when Bush's father and Dole were the nominees, because the party failed to put forward "inspired, principled" leaders.

Yesterday's debate, the fourth in the past 10 days for the Republican candidates, was less spirited than previous encounters. Agriculture, education and religion were among the topics.

Recent polling shows Bush and McCain in a tight race in New Hampshire. Apparently confident of victory in Iowa, and hoping to score a knockout blow in the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary, Bush will devote two campaign days to the Granite State this week.

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