Democrats in Congress gear up for fight over Bush tax-cut plan

White House efforts to pressure opponents fuel rancor in Capitol

March 05, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Casting aside pledges to work together, House Democrats and Republicans are preparing for a partisan fight this week over the administration's tax-cut plan, threatening an end to President Bush's brief political honeymoon with the thinly divided Congress.

Even Bush's closest allies among congressional Democrats sent messages to the president over the weekend that the tactics of Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, as well as his roadshow efforts to sell his tax cuts, are likely to increase the rancor in the capital.

Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who nearly joined the Bush Cabinet, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that it was a "serious mistake" for the White House to allow the GOP congressional leadership to rush a key component of the president's tax-cut plan through a House committee last week, a move that set up a possible blood-letting floor vote this week.

Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House, told the Washington Post that Bush's legislative strategy and White House efforts to pressure lawmakers in their districts have "cut the heart out of me."

Even so, Bush will keep up the pressure this week with visits to North and South Dakota, Louisiana and Florida -- states that he won in the presidential election and that each have two Democratic senators.

Last week, he appeared in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas and Georgia. The aim is to try to move public opinion in as many states as possible in a bid to sway votes in Congress, especially in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between the two parties.

"Every day, in every way, whether it's at the White House or it's in travel, the president looks at how to get his plan across to the voters so the voters can get their message to the senators and the congressmen," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Karl Rove, the chief White House political strategist, insisted in a weekend interview on CNN that "the tone is changing" in Washington because of Bush. "The rhetoric is less heated. The recriminations are less frequent. And there's a new spirit emerging in Washington," Rove said.

But while Bush is away from Washington, pitching his tax cuts to sympathetic audiences and boasting of changing the political climate in the capital, his party's congressional leaders are rushing to get his tax-cut proposal through the House, well ahead of his budget proposals, which Democrats insist should come first.

"It should not be `my way or no way,' because in the past when both sides have taken that position, or either side has, `no way' always wins," Breaux said. "And that shouldn't be allowed to happen."

Breaux, a leader of a bipartisan group of about 40 centrists in the Senate, cautioned that a breakdown of bipartisanship in Congress at this early stage of Bush's presidency could have repercussions in future efforts to reform education and Medicare.

The relationship between congressional Republicans and Democrats soured Thursday when the House Ways and Means Committee, on a 23-15 party line vote, approved a plan calling for the first $958 billion installment on the president's $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax-cut package, just two days after the president formally presented his plan to Congress.

But what infuriated Democrats even more was word that the Republican House leadership does not intend to allow Democrats to present their alternative tax-cut plan -- a more modest $900 billion cut targeted to middle- and lower-income Americans over the next decade -- when floor debate begins this week on the Bush tax cut.

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