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Numbers don't add up, Democrats say

Bush's tax cut faces opposition on Capitol Hill, where critics are devising their own plans.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


WASHINGTON -- "There's a feeling," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, "that there's a new sheriff in town."

The sheriff, a Texan who is new to these parts, got a warm welcome from the locals Tuesday night. They laughed at his jokes and cheered his vision for the future.

But despite the warm glow around President Bush's first address to Congress, he faces some early challenges on Capitol Hill.

He must convince Congress his budget is realistic. He vowed Tuesday night that he can afford to pass a big tax cut, reduce the national debt and still deliver hefty increases in education, defense spending and create a new $1-trillion contingency fund -- all without spending the Social Security surplus. He said his budget "is reasonable and it is responsible."

But Democrats were quick to pounce on the plan.

"President Bush's budget numbers simply don't add up," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said in the Democratic response. "Ours do. His plan leaves no money for anything except tax cuts. Ours does."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said Bush should have learned a lesson in his home state.

"Two years ago, using rosy forecasts, then-Gov. Bush signed a budget that cut taxes by $1.8-billion," Daschle said. "But his budget projections were wrong. Today, Texas faces a serious budget shortfall."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called Bush's tax cut "so big that it's going to wreck our economy. We had a glimpse of that in 1981 when we enacted a tax cut so large that it drove us into deficit spending."

Republicans are eager to capitalize on Bush's honeymoon by voting on a tax cut as quickly as possible. The first bill could go to the House floor next month.

But with polls showing a tax cut is not a top priority for most Americans, GOP leaders on Tuesday emphasized how the president's budget would also reduce the debt.

"The American people do want us to have tax relief while paying down the national debt in an orderly way," said Lott.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-West

Beach, said, "If people look at this in total, they are going to see a balanced approach. It seeks relief for the individual and pushes up spending for education and defense and debt repayment."

However, the new president faces some major hurdles selling his plan to Congress. He'll have a particularly difficult time in the Senate, which is split 50-50.

Two Republicans have said they oppose the Bush tax plan and one Democrat has said he will support it.

"I don't know that either side has the votes," Daschle told reporters Tuesday. "We're in a very competitive position."

But Democrats have had a difficult time reaching consensus on their own proposal in the past few weeks. In general, they support a plan smaller than Bush's, but they have not agreed how it should be divvied up.

Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Jon Corzine, D-N.J., have proposed a plan to cut the bottom tax bracket from 15 percent to 10 percent. Because all taxpayers have some income taxed in that bracket, their plan would deliver an annual tax cut of $475 for singles and $950 for married couples.

Graham said a large share of his plan will go to middle- and lower-income taxpayers -- "working Americans most likely to spend it."

Lott carefully avoided saying compromise on Tuesday, but he said Bush is "going to have to be prepared to talk with individual senators and understand where their concerns are."

In other words, compromise.

Bush has shown few signs of that, however. His plan is largely the same as when he introduced it a year ago.

"We're dealing with a Texan here," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. "You don't fold before you get to the table."

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