Why don't Democrats stop Bush tax cut?

March 16, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The former major-league baseball owner now in the White House likes to quote Yogi Berra, as in "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." As his new administration unfolds, however, another Berraism comes to mind: "It's dM-ijM-` vu all over again."

For all of George W. Bush's talk of compassionate conservatism, his brand is looking more and more like the unmodified conservatism of Ronald Reagan. The latest example is his decision, at the urging of the coal and oil lobbies, to abandon his campaign pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

More pointedly, Mr. Bush's trifecta of a huge tax cut, increased defense spending and a missile defense pipe dream are all out of the old Reagan playbook that delivered unbalanced budgets, colossal federal deficits and offered about as much security from ballistic missile attacks as the Travelers Insurance folks' umbrella.

In 1980, when he was running against Mr. Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination, George W.'s father had a name for his rival's scheme for giving taxpayers their money back, revitalizing defense and balancing the budget at the same time. The senior Mr. Bush called it "voodoo economics" -- until Mr. Reagan took him as his running mate and Papa Bush denied he'd said it.

This time around, though, the junior Mr. Bush has an advantage Mr. Reagan never enjoyed -- eight years of prosperity and seemingly ever-increasing surpluses with which to play Santa Claus to the taxpayers, especially the wealthiest who would get the lion's share of his income-tax cut.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Reagan pulled off his tax cut not only with the personal charm that the new president also seems to project but also with a thundering mandate from the voters as a result of his decisive victory over the estimable but politically hapless Jimmy Carter. When the junior Mr. Bush refers to his mandate, it is only a reminder of his skimpy winning margin of three electoral votes and his half-a-million popular vote loss.

Nevertheless, he was able to rush his tax cut through the Republican-controlled House under rules that did not permit a Democratic alternative -- a strategy that has Democrats grousing about a conspicuous lack of the civility that he claimed so loudly in his first address to Congress. It was hardly an invitation to the bipartisanship that he professes to seek.

In the Senate, where no such muzzle can be put on the opposition as a result of that body's rules and its threat of filibuster, the Democrats have the wherewithal to turn back the return of Reaganism if they really are of a mind to do so.

The 50-50 party split leaves them frustratingly short of control, with Vice President Dick Cheney as president of the Senate positioned to break any tie. But those 50 votes are more than enough to talk the Bush tax cut to death, or at least force significant changes in it to bring more relief to middle-income and lower-income taxpayers and less to Republican interests who bankrolled the Bush campaign.

Mr. Bush's decision to lead off his major legislative agenda with the highly controversial tax cut -- a proposal that seemed dead in the water during the presidential campaign, before the stock market started its slide -- was a risky one, if his intent indeed was to bring civility and bipartisanship to Washington. One wonders whether White House concern over the durability of GOP control of the Senate was a factor in the rush.

Increasingly, the health of 98-year-old Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, in obvious decline, is taking on the aspect of a ghoulish watch. His departure from the Senate would almost certainly bring appointment of a Democrat by South Carolina's Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges -- despite a reported letter by Mr. Thurmond to Mr. Hodges seeking appointment of his former wife if his seat becomes vacant.

A switch from the current 50-50 split to a 51-49 Democratic majority would put all Senate committees under Democratic control and a Democratic majority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, as the legislative traffic cop. That prospect is reason enough for Mr. Bush to put his Reaganism tax cut on a fast track, even at the cost of House Democratic grumblings.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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