House rejects effort to curb Bush tax cuts

`Pay as you go' measure loses with a 209-209 vote


WASHINGTON - House Republican leaders avoided an embarrassing setback yesterday as they barely defeated a nonbinding resolution that would favor restrictions on future tax cuts that are the centerpiece of President Bush's economic program.

The major budget fight between the House and Senate this year is not over the budget itself, as both Republican-controlled chambers have approved $2.4 trillion spending plans for next year that largely mesh with Bush's proposal.

Instead, the battle is over rules that would make it more difficult for Congress to approve tax cuts that are not paid for through increases in other taxes or through spending cuts. The Senate has approved a "pay as you go" measure, but Bush and Republican congressional leaders strenuously oppose the legislation.

In a sign that many lawmakers are becoming apprehensive about the $478 billion budget deficit in a major election year, the House split, 209-209, on a measure that would urge House members negotiating a budget compromise with the Senate to accept tax-cut restrictions. At one point, 212 House members had voted for the measure, but House leaders kept the vote open for more than 20 extra minutes to pressure a handful of members to change their votes. The tie vote meant that the measure was defeated.

With House leaders able to maintain their chamber's opposition to the "pay as you go" rule, attention is turning to the two senators who may hold the fate of the budget in their hands: Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins, both Republicans from Maine.

This month, both women joined with two other Senate Republicans, John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and all but one Democrat to approve, 51-48, an amendment that would require a three-fifths vote for the Senate to approve any tax cuts in the next five years that are not offset by spending cuts or increases in other taxes. White House officials acknowledge that the provision could make it difficult for Bush, if he is re-elected, to win later extensions of tax cuts passed in the last three years that expire by the end of the decade.

McCain and Chafee say they will vote for a final budget only if it includes the provision. Yesterday, Collins said she was open to a compromise, perhaps a provision of shorter duration. "It might be possible to have something that was more limited in time," Collins said. "I am open to discussing any reasonable alternative."

But Snowe indicated that she was less inclined to compromise. "I'm not likely to vote for a conference report without [pay-as-you-go] that treats tax cuts and spending equally," she said.

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