Senate deals Bush tax plan `setback'

Vt. Republican votes with Democrats on reduction amendment

April 05, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - A troublesome crack appeared yesterday in Senate Republican ranks that raised doubts about whether President Bush can eke out a narrow margin in support of his $1.6 trillion tax cut, but GOP leaders were scrambling to keep their team together.

Vermont Republican James M. Jeffords, who has been negotiating with the White House to win a promise of higher spending for education programs for the disabled, complained that his demands had not been met and he was leaning against voting for the blueprint that reflects Bush's spending and tax-cut proposals.

"Unless a miracle occurs, I fear I'm bending in that direction," Jeffords told reporters. With the Senate divided 50-50 between the two parties, a one-vote shift could be crucial.

The budget blueprint is nonbinding, but debate on the spending and tax proposals often is used to gauge support for the legislation that would be required to make them law.

Shortly after his announcement, Jeffords joined the nearly united Democrats in supporting an amendment to the budget proposal that would reduce Bush's 10-year tax cut by $447 billion to put an additional $250 billion toward education programs and the rest toward paying down the national debt.

After Jeffords cast his vote, two other Republicans voted in favor of the amendment, which passed 53-47. But one of those on the prevailing side was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who immediately served notice that he would call for a revote at some point.

Lott wants to provide an opportunity to change the amendment in a way more acceptable to the White House.

"It's a setback," Don Nickles, the Senate Republican whip, said of Jeffords' defection on the education amendment. "But hopefully we can restore most of the tax-cut money. We're going to pass the largest tax cut we can."

Alternative sought

Last night, Republican leaders were working with Jeffords to craft an alternative amendment that would put the money he wants into education programs for the mentally and physically disabled, but not draw on the funds that Bush has set aside for his tax cut.

Jeffords wants to increase special education spending by $180 billion over the next decade and make the funding automatic rather than subject to annual congressional review. The disabled program is receiving $6.3 billion this year. Republicans have so far offered him $153 billion over 10 years.

"When we get through the budget process and get to tax relief, we're going to have a tax cut in the $1.6 trillion range," Lott told reporters. "Along the way there will be some bumps in the road. It's typical."

The other Republican who voted in favor of the amendment was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Expected to support the $1.6 trillion tax cut, Specter has not formally promised his vote.

Rhode Island Republican Lincoln D. Chafee, who has opposed the size of Bush's tax cut from the start, has consistently voted with the Democrats. But his vote has been offset by Georgia Democrat Zell Miller, who supports the Bush tax cut and has been voting with the Republicans.

Yesterday, the Democrats claimed that their amendment had dealt such a serious blow to the president's proposals that the White House would be forced to negotiate with them on a smaller tax cut.

Bush plan `now dead'

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle contended Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut "is now dead."

Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, chief sponsor of the successful amendment, said he believed the vote was a recognition that public support for both education and debt reduction is greater than the demand for tax cuts.

Democrats have repeatedly argued that Bush's tax proposals would consume too much of the $5.6 trillion surplus expected over the next decade. They say they would support a tax cut of as much as $900 billion over 10 years, but that the rest of the money should be set aside for Social Security, Medicare, debt reduction and other needs, such as education.

The Democrats have been attempting to make their point through a series of proposed amendments to the budget blueprint that would take money from the tax and allocate it to other purposes. The GOP tactic in response has been generally to support additional funds for popular programs, such as agriculture, defense and a Medicare drug coverage, but call for them to be financed from a reserve fund that Bush has set aside for unexpected needs.

A budget blueprint based on Bush's proposals easily passed the House last week on a largely party-line vote. The House also has already approved the three major pieces of Bush's tax cut, including a measure passed yesterday that would phase out the estate tax.

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