Senate GOP still optimistic on tax cut

Despite resistance, budget approval looks likely this week

April 04, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With President Bush's tax-cut and spending plans facing stiff resistance from Senate Democrats, Republicans say they nevertheless expect passage of Bush's budget proposals by the end of the week.

But just in case, Vice President Dick Cheney is prepared to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 along party lines. Just yesterday, Cheney cast his first tiebreaker - on a proposed amendment to the budget blueprint - and he plans to stay close by for the rest of the week.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who is chairman of the Budget Committee, said that after weeks of fretting about lacking the votes for Bush's proposal to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion over 10 years, he now expects the president's plan to prevail.

"I'm feeling very upbeat today," Domenici said. "I think we've got the votes."

Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who was one of a handful of publicly undecided Republicans, used his pivotal position to win concessions for higher spending on education for the disabled. Other Republicans successfully pushed for increases in defense and agriculture spending.

Democrats complain that Bush's proposed tax cut is too large and that it shortchanges such important priorities as education and prescription drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries. As the budget blueprint is debated over the next few days, the Democrats plan to offer amendments that would reorder the priorities in the president's budget for use of the $5.6 trillion budget surplus.

"The American people need to understand that we can't have it all," said Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat. "The sensible thing to do is have a more moderate tax cut, protect programs and pay down the debt."

But Republicans are expected to generally hold ranks. Counting Jeffords, all Senate Republicans are now expected to vote for the budget except one: Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, who had vowed during his Senate campaign last year that he would not support Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut because he believes it is too large.

Chafee has been lobbied heavily by Republican leaders, including Cheney, who met with him Monday evening. Their pitch, Chafee said, is that the economy needs the tax cut and Bush needs a political victory on his first budget.

"Frankly, I don't agree with that," Chafee said. "Just a few months ago, President Clinton vetoed a $400 billion tax-cut bill because he said it was too big. We could pass a tax cut this year of $850 billion or $900 billion and Bush could claim a great victory."

Senate Republicans can prevail without Chafee because they have the support of one Democrat - Zell Miller of Georgia.

With Miller's help, Republicans defeated a Democratic proposal yesterday to reduce the tax cut total by 10 percent and transfer the resulting $170 billion into Medicare for a prescription drug program. Democrats said the $153 billion that Bush proposes for drug coverage is too low. Chafee voted with the Democrats, but the proposal failed on a 50-50 tie.

The Senate adopted instead a Republican proposal to allow up to up to $300 billion to be spent for a prescription drug program but directed that the extra money would be taken from a $684 billion "contingency" fund that Bush has included, partly for this purpose. Miller voted for that proposal, and Chafee voted against it. This produced a 50-50 tie that Cheney broke in his role as presiding officer of the Senate.

The budget blueprint is not binding. Separate bills will have to be enacted by Congress to establish the details of the tax cuts and spending proposals.

But with Republicans now controlling the White House as well as Congress, the president's budget proposals are being taken more seriously than is usually the case.

The House approved a blueprint based on Bush's budget last week by a vote of 222 to 205, largely along party lines. The Senate, which began work Monday on the House-passed version, is making changes, partly to accommodate Republicans whose votes are needed.

For example, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said yesterday that his vote would not have been forthcoming without the additional $7.5 billion to $8 billion he has been promised for farm aid.

And Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who leads the Armed Services Committee, has been pledged an extra $8.5 billion for military personnel and readiness.

The extra money will drive up spending next year beyond the 4 percent average growth in spending that Bush proposed.

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