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Democrats unveil more modest tax plan

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Jon Corzine and Luwanna Adams have little or nothing in common. He is a billionaire Wall Street investor-turned-senator; she is a $20,400-a-year office worker. But when they appeared together on Capitol Hill on Thursday, they succeeded in giving voice to the Democrats' view of President Bush's proposed tax cut.

Adams, a single mother from Homestead, Pa., told reporters she expects to get only $117 a year from Bush's proposed tax cut -- not enough to buy the used car she desperately needs.

"I heard that people with much higher incomes will receive a much higher tax break and that makes me mad," she said. "I think if the government has extra money for tax cuts, that working people, such as me, should receive a much higher tax cut."

Corzine, meanwhile, said he will get a $1-million return from Bush's tax cut -- much more than he needs. "I don't need a break, but Luwanna does," Corzine, D-N.J., declared.

The Corzine-Adams performance appeared to create a public relations breakthrough for Democrats, who until Thursday were complaining they could not get attention for their view that their president's tax plan gives too much to the rich and too little to the poor.

Republicans, who previously have ignored the Democrats' criticism, reacted angrily.

"I am tired of hearing those who have plenty of money complain they have too much money," said Rep. J.C. Watts, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "Let them write a check to the Department of Treasury and pay down more of the debt if they don't want their share of tax relief."

Faced with a Republican president and a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in decades, Democrats admit they are being forced to resort to publicity gimmicks to get media attention for their criticism of the Bush plan.

"That's what you've got to do when you don't have the Oval Office and the Rose Garden," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

Yet even as they struggle to gain attention, the Democrats are making it clear they do not intend to be steamrolled by the new Republican president and his supporters in Congress. Instead, they are determined to offer their own alternatives and to insist on compromise.

At the Corzine-Adams news conference, Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said Democrats want to trim Bush's tax cut from $1.6-trillion to $900-billion and to give lower-income taxpayers such as Adams a bigger portion of the benefits.

Daschle said he saw it as "a real encouraging sign" that at least two moderate Republican senators -- James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- have rejected the president's tax cut as too big. He predicted that more Republicans will soon move closer to the Democratic point of view.

"I think we're beginning to see signs of real cracking on the side of the Republican support for the budget and for the tax cut," Daschle said. "If I had to guess today, I think you're going to see more and more Republicans come to the middle and realize, with us, that we can do better than this."

Watts, meanwhile, noted that Democrats have moved more to the middle since last year when they refused to consider a tax cut in excess of $300-billion.

"The same Democrats who railed against tax relief in the last Congress are now advocating an even larger plan today," Watts said. "This is encouraging. I hope it's not just rhetoric."

At the White House, however, press secretary Ari Fleischer said the president is unmoved by stories of low-income people who want a bigger tax break than Bush would give them. "His plan helps that taxpayer; he's going to fight for the plan he put forward," Fleischer said.

Last week, the president himself relied on a single mother from Arlington Heights, Ill., to help him tout his tax cut proposal. Although she did not disclose her income, she said she was expecting a windfall of about $1,000.

Even as Democrats struggle to counter Bush's proposal, they still cannot agree among themselves on a single alternative to the president's tax cut plan. Gephardt acknowledged that Democrats are considering at least three different strategies: to cut tax rates, to provide taxpayers with a one-time dividend or to give taxpayers a rebate on Social Security taxes.

But Daschle emphasized that Democrats are in agreement that only one-third of the available budget surplus should be spent on tax cuts. In addition, they would spend one-third on deficit reduction and one-third on new spending for such priorities as education reform.

"We're using a different approach than the president used," he said. "The president's plan is decide how big the tax cut you want first, then figure out what you can do with whatever is left, if anything is left. We start at the beginning. We're asking: What are our obligations? How much do we need to set aside to pay down the national debt, provide prescription drug coverage, strengthen our children's schools and do all the other things we have to do to help families and keep the economy strong. We need to figure that out first."

Under the Democrats' plan, according Gephardt, Luwanna Adams would not only get a bigger tax cut -- perhaps as much as $300 a year -- but she also would get the benefit of new spending programs and lower interest rates resulting from their plan.

Likewise, Daschle said, although Corzine's tax cut would be smaller under the Democrats' plan, he would get benefits similar to those enjoyed by Adams.

"Jon Corzine's kids are going to get a better education; Jon Corzine's family will see lower interest rates," he said. "Jon Corzine will have an opportunity to ensure that people that are elderly are going to have a prescription drug benefit. And we're going to have the ability to do the kinds of things to make this economy strong by paying down the public debt. That's as much of a benefit for Jon Corzine as it is for Luwanna."

Although Bush has indicated he is willing to make the tax cut retroactive, as some Democrats have proposed, Fleischer said he still firmly opposes any cut in the size of the package or any of the other alternatives the Democrats are considering.

But Democrats are not taking that as Bush's final answer. "Maybe," Daschle said, ". . . we can find common ground in the middle. We certainly hope so."

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