Republicans poised to ram tax-rate cut through House

Democrats say push alienates centrists Bush will need later

March 08, 2001|By Karen Hosler and David L. Greene | Karen Hosler and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In sharp contrast to his campaign to court Democrats, President Bush and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill are preparing to ram the first critical portion of his tax cut plan through the House today on a largely party line vote.

Republican leaders say that speedy House action on Bush's plan for broad tax rate cuts will strengthen the president's hand for the battle ahead in the evenly divided Senate, where he faces resistance from a few in his own party as well as from nearly all Democrats.

"It sends a very strong political signal that this tax cut is really going to happen," Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican and leading advocate of the president's proposal, said of today's likely House approval.

But conservative Democrats warn that the strong-arm tactics, including some thinly veiled threats from Vice President Dick Cheney in a radio interview, could alienate centrist Democrats whose help Bush might need on other issues.

"There could be some very bloody collateral effects from this," said Rep. Chris John of Louisiana, one of the many conservative Democrats who plan to vote against the tax cut measure despite pressure from the White House.

"We are the guys he's going to have to come to when he wants to get other things done" on such issues as presidential trade authority and trade relations with China.

Today's vote represents the first legislative step in a long process toward what most members of Congress agree will result in some form of tax cut this year. The House and Senate Democratic leadership has proposed its own broad tax rate cut, smaller than what Bush has proposed.

Senate action won't come until this spring. And the final bill probably won't be forged until a joint House-Senate conference committee negotiates openly with the White House during the summer or fall.

Still much in doubt are most of the details - including how deeply taxes will be cut and how various taxpayer groups will benefit. A bipartisan group of Senate centrists said yesterday that they were determined to attach a "trigger" mechanism to the final bill that would cancel tax cuts scheduled to take effect after next year if projected budget surpluses fail to materialize.

House leaders, in consultation with Bush, decided early last month to move quickly on a broad rate cut, hoping to convince wavering lawmakers that quick action might provide a stimulating effect on the slowing economy.

They also hoped to capitalize on the new president's popularity by acting on the centerpiece of his tax cut proposal soon after his well-received televised address to a joint session of Congress.

"We wanted to strike while the iron was hot," said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

With nearly all the House Republicans, plus perhaps a few Democrats, expected to vote for the bill today, House Republican leaders say they are confident that the proposal will pass.

"But it's a long process," said the president, who was considering make some last-minute calls to try to nail down additional votes. "We've got to get it over to the Senate. And get to conference. And we'll be working members all the way through."

Democrats are protesting that the tax cut measure is being rammed through the House so quickly that Republican leaders are violating the rules that call for a budget blueprint to be approved before consideration of tax and spending legislation.

In particular, a group of conservative Democrats who call themselves Blue Dogs complain that it is irresponsible to vote for a tax cut before Congress has worked out how much of the budget surplus might be needed for other purposes. At the top of their list is paying down the national debt.

"I know they don't need us on this one," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a Texas Democrat and longtime leader of the Blue Dogs. "But this isn't helpful for the future," when the White House will need their support.

The White House has waged a multifront lobbying effort to try to give the Bush tax cut added momentum. Bush has been entertaining lawmakers for weeks, including a movie date at the White House last night for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, and other lawmakers.

At the same time, Bush started going around the lawmakers - both senators and House members - to appeal directly to their constituents through appearances in their states and districts. The targets have included members who have voted in the past for other components of Bush's plan - such as ending the estate tax - and Democrats in states that backed Bush in November.

On Tuesday, for example, Bush focused on two Chicago-area Democrats, Reps. Rod R. Blagojevich and William O. Lipinski, urging their constituents during a trip to the Midwest to "tell them to come on the side of the people, when it comes to what to do with your money."

Lipinski, who got a ride back to Washington aboard Air Force One, is said to be leaning the president's way. Blagojevich remains a firm no on Bush's tax rate cut.

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