Caution caucus strikes back

March 27, 2003

TWO TIME-HONORED Washington traditions hold that the moderate middle is too disorganized to lead, and that the House and Senate usually resolve disputes by splitting the difference.

Senate centrists managed to defy the first tradition this week by finally putting together enough votes to reduce President Bush's proposed $726 billion tax cut by more than half.

To demonstrate that vote wasn't a fluke, they must stand their ground against what will likely be huge White House pressure to yield at least part way to the House, which supports the full Bush cut.

As negotiations over the reduced tax cut begin, the senators' message to the House should be: Take it or leave it.

Even at the Senate total of $350 billion over 10 years, the tax cut is still far too large. The nation is awash in red ink, piling up enormous bills for the war in Iraq and facing a long-term cash crunch in Medicare and Social Security.

Once the total amount is set in the budget, the really hard work begins. Lawmakers have to design a tax cut with maximum voltage to jump-start the war-battered economy while withholding costly favors from wealthy individuals who don't need them.

Working with the lower number will allow the lawmakers to neatly lop off Mr. Bush's proposal to eliminate the tax on dividends, an idea whose time has definitely not come. Most of the savings would go in large chunks to the very rich.

Instead, whatever tax cut is approved should be directed to the people most likely to put it immediately back into the economy, such as working-class families and small businesses struggling through what has been a sputtering, jobless recovery.

Particularly helpful would be relief to the states. States are struggling under the combined burden of increased security costs due to terrorist threats, and higher social welfare costs resulting from the economic downturn - at a time when their own tax revenues are off.

The trouble with a bipartisan coalition of centrists is that they are by definition mavericks who balk at unity. They were all over the map on the tax cut, for example, and lost on their first attempt to reduce it by half because they couldn't hold their ranks in line.

But these times of war, economic distress and sharp political divisions between party leaders create a perfect opening for the so-called mushy middle to find its muscle.

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