Senate narrowly votes to reduce Bush tax cut

52-47 decision shaves $100 billion off plan for $726 billion reduction

March 22, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONALSTAFF

WASHINGTON-The Republican-led Senate narrowly voted yesterday to shave $100 billion from President Bush's $726 billion tax cut and use it to pay for the war in Iraq, after turning back an attempt by Democrats and Republican moderates to shrink the cut by more than half.

The Senate is scheduled to pass the 2004 budget next week, after a long day yesterday slogging through scores of amendments affecting Congress' tax-cutting and federal spending decisions for the next year.

Bush administration officials and Republican leaders were seeking a way to restore the $100 billion in tax cuts, but it was unclear whether they would succeed.

The House passed a similar budget plan early yesterday by an extraordinarily narrow margin, 215-212. It keeps Bush's "economic growth package" intact, setting up a conference to resolve the differences between the two chambers.

Bush's tax cut suffered a setback yesterday when the Senate adopted, 52-47, an amendment by Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, to chop $100 billion off his "growth package" and shift it to a reserve fund to pay for the war in Iraq.

Feingold said it was inappropriate for Congress to pass a budget that does not account for the cost of the war in Iraq.

"I think it's a slap in the face to the American people to pretend that this is not costly, and it's dishonest budgeting not to put it in there," Feingold said after the vote. "It's just common sense - we've got to pay for the war."

As the House and Senate have considered their budget plans this week, Democrats have complained that the measures do not include funding for the Iraq conflict, accusing Republicans and Bush of purposely trying to delay talk of war costs to avoid jeopardizing the president's tax-cutting plans.

The administration is set next week to send Congress a supplemental spending request believed to cost between $80 billion and $100 billion to pay for the first stages of the war in Iraq and homeland security costs.

Three Republicans joined 48 Democrats and Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont in support of Feingold's proposal to create a war reserve fund.

Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona supported the amendment.

Bush administration officials and Senate Republican leaders lobbied behind the scenes to try to sway the three.

"My phone is ringing off the hook," Collins said yesterday afternoon, just minutes after receiving a message that Treasury Secretary John W. Snow wanted to speak with her.

Later yesterday, Bush's tax cut survived a key test when the Senate rejected, 62-38, an amendment by moderate Sens. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, that would have cut the proposal to $350 billion, using $275 billion of the savings for paying down the federal debt.

The Senate Finance Committee must write a tax-reduction measure in the coming weeks, and if Snowe joins Democrats in pushing a smaller plan than Bush wants, it would set the stage for another lively floor fight.

"I've got some ideas," Breaux said. "I'm not dead yet."

The Senate approved, 51-49, an amendment by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, to add $912 million in funding for Amtrak.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, teamed with Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, to add $3 billion to the budget during the next 10 years for water infrastructure programs - increasing the federal funds available for clean water projects around the country, including the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.

Without the amendment, Maryland stood to lose $12 million in federal clean water money.

House Republican leaders were scrambling until the last moments early yesterday to gather votes for their plan.

Still, they lost about a dozen Republicans moderates and conservatives, including Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland. He opposed the $400 billion in the budget for Medicare reform and the addition of a prescription drug benefit, which he said would add a costly entitlement.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, was the only Marylander to support the budget, with all the Democrats voting "no."

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