The Washington Times
Was that a major setback for the Bush tax cut in the Senate last week? Democrats certainly had reason to advertise it as one. They found traction with an argument that finally addressed their real policy concern, namely, that a Bush-size tax cut would leave the government starved of resources to address other important national problems – for example, Medicare funding. The Senate voted to trim Mr. Bush’s proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut to about $1.2 trillion, in order to allow for spending increases elsewhere.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle deserves credit for reformulating the debate in a fashion more useful to Democrats. For some months, the Democratic story on the Bush plan has been a regular refrain emphasizing how much the wealthy will benefit from it – what Republicans like to denounce as class-warfare rhetoric. That’s a good strategy for rallying the Democratic Party faithful, and it is necessarily going to remain an element of the Democratic response. But finally, it fails to state what Democrats are for. In turning the debate to the forgone opportunities implied by a large tax cut, Democrats (As E.J. Dionne has noted) have returned to territory that has been politically rich for them.
The Democratic leadership has professed its belief that a tax cut is in order, as indeed did Al Gore during his presidential campaign last year – but not a Bush-size tax cut. This left the discussion a matter of competing numbers. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, was effective in bringing out real people to talk about what the tax cut would do for them. For a long time, Mr. Daschle, Mr. Gephardt et al. were content to contrast the Lexus the rich would get with the muffler for the middle class. Now, they’ve found a way to talk about what the dollar gap between what they are prepared to do and what Mr. Bush wants can do for people.
Mr. Bush has been arguing that the $1.6 trillion figure is “just right.” Last week, though, was a substantial Senate majority saying it was too big. To the extent that the administration has invested its prestige in the $1.6 trillion total, its prestige took a blow when Mr. Bush failed to hold enough Republicans in the evenly divided Senate to go forward with his figure.
But in truth, the story is a little more complicated than that. What the Senate vote also established is substantial bipartisan support for a tax cut of significant proportion. Fifteen Democrats joined all Republicans in arriving at the $1.2 trillion figure (which does not include, by the way, another $80 billion or so for a tax-cut stimulus this year to pump a little demand into the ailing economy). Enacting a $1.2 trillion tax cut is not a goal of the Democratic leadership of the Senate or the House or Representatives. What the Senate also established for Mr. Bush is a floor for a tax cut this year.
This is no small thing. Any tax cut hinging on a tiebreaker vote cast by Vice President Dick Cheney in a Senate split 50-50 was by no means a sure bet politically. Louisiana Democrat John Breaux – a man whose words and actions deserve close scrutiny these days, since he arguably occupies a position at the precise center of American politics – capably demonstrated that there will be significant Democratic support for a measure Mr. Bush can sign.
The White House characterized the Senate vote as a step forward, but mainly got stepped on by Democrats and their friends celebrating the tactical victory they did in fact enjoy. But the White House was not wrong. A tax cut of far greater significance than the one-time rebate proposal that recently flashed in the pan is now more rather than less likely.
The Bush administration has a lot of work left to do, but the centerpiece of its legislative agenda is indeed advancing. Some have asked whether Mr. Bush will stick to his guns, still insisting that $1.6 trillion is right. Or will he move in the direction of the Senate figure, thereby antagonizing conservatives in his party (who think $1.6 trillion is “too small”)?
He has no reason not to stick to his guns. The legislative process has a long way to go. The Senate has to craft its package, the House its package, then the two have to be reconciled. Mr. Bush has his floor; he has no interest in lowering his ceiling while Congress does its work.