To Get Tax Cut, Bush Must Regain Control Of National Agenda

6 April 2001

By Stentor Danielson

President Bush has been widely criticized for accepting his disputed election and the Republican Party's hairbreadth majority in Congress as a sweeping mandate to rule. He left liberals aghast by assembling what looked like the most conservative administration in decades, and charged this cabinet with implementing a host of changes.

In his first week, he revived the "Mexico City Rule" prohibiting foreign aid to pro-choice groups. He moved quickly to establish his Office of Faith-Based Charities despite criticisms from the right as well as the left. He struck down many environmental regulations issued in the final days of Bill Clinton's term. He pointedly abandoned U.S. diplomacy in Northern Ireland, Israel and North Korea. And he stumped tirelessly for his tax cut package, shouting economic woe so much that many fear it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But lately, Bush has seemed to be letting others set the agenda. Environmentalists caught him with his pants down (in metaphor only, of course) when Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman loudly misinterpreted the administration's stance on carbon emissions and global warming. Senators John McCain (R-Az.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) muscled the Senate into a guaranteed two-week debate of their campaign finance legislation, a bill that Bush the candidate disparaged but which Bush the President looks nearly cowed into signing. Finally, the precariousness of his hard-nosed stance toward China has been illustrated by his pleas for the return of 24 crewmembers of a spy plane that crashed into a Chinese jet and made an emergency landing on the island of Hainan.

This shift in momentum comes just as the Senate begins to consider the crown jewel of Bush's to-do list: a tax cut of $1.6 trillion over ten years. Wednesday the tax cut faltered as the Senate reduced it to two thirds its original size on a 52-48 vote. Achieving his budgetary goals could give Bush a big boost (in strength if not necessarily in the public opinion polls he professes such disdain for). But he needs to regain some momentum in order to win that victory.

The tax cut has been Bush's baby since he unveiled it in the Republican primary race, one of the first concrete proposals offered by any candidate. He held fast to the plan as he originally described it, refusing to change or drastically re-spin it, despite withering criticisms from first McCain, then Al Gore and, most recently, congressional Democrats.

Bush's rhetoric justifying the cut has made a 180 degree shift along with the nations' economic outlook, from "the government has too much money and it's only fair to give some back" to "a tax cut will rev up a faltering economy." But the plan itself has remained essentially the same. The only significant change has been Bush's proposal to make the cut retroactive to the beginning of this year, in order to get it in effect sooner.

With McCain-Feingold passed, the Senate turned its attention this week to a budget that provides the framework for Bush's tax cut. Though the measure, which has already been approved by the House of Representatives, does not guarantee a tax cut, the cut would be nearly impossible without it.

But Democrats, perhaps pumped by their success at long last in the campaign finance reform arena, are determined to block the tax cut. Momentum for the cut seemed to be building as the Democratic leadership acquiesced to the pro-tax cut pressure and proposed its own, more modest, tax cut. Even socialist Representative Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) advanced a tax cut proposal, though his flat $300-per-citizen rebate avoids the common criticism of Bush's plan - that it tilts to the rich. The debate seemed to be shaping up as a squabble over the size of the cut, likely to end in a compromise despite Bush's insistence that he would settle for nothing less than $1.6 trillion.

Partisan lines were drawn Tuesday as the tax cut required Vice President Dick Cheney's first (but doubtless not last) tiebreaking vote in the evenly split Senate. Republicans almost unanimously opposed a Democratic proposal to cut into the tax break to increase Medicare funding, with Lincoln Chafee's (R-R.I.) defection balanced by Zell Miller (D-Ga.). The next day there were three Republicans who joined 49 Democrats in slashing the size of the tax cut.

The sudden realization of the Senate's even balance and the potential for gridlock has sent Republicans scrambling for ways to win over Democrats and wavering members of their own party to the partial budget plan. Spending increases for Medicare, defense, agriculture and veterans' affairs have been promised to soothe the fears of those who worry that the tax cut will leave the government without funds.

This still leaves the question of what will be cut to achieve Bush's tax cut and his promised funding increases for defense, education and a prescription drug plan for Medicare as well as a reduction from eight percent to four percent of the rate of overall government growth. Bush has been deliberately vague on this point, insisting that Congress commit to a tax cut first and worry about how to divvy up the remaining funds later. This move could come back to haunt him and trip up the tax cut victory he needs.

To ensure the feasibility of his overall budget plan, Bush needs to clarify for both his supporters and his enemies where spending will be cut. Opponents can better be won to his side if the specter of funding cuts can be brought into the light and faced head-on, like opening the closet door to check for the boogeyman. Republicans, on the other hand, need guidance lest they screw up the plan by making ill-advised concessions in order to win support to a plan they understand poorly. Indeed, the additional Medicare spending approved as an alternative to the Democratic proposal was twice the funding increase requested by the President. Education and debt reduction were cited in the tax cut reduction approved Wednesday. Bush no longer has the grip on the agenda to use ignorance to his advantage.

Revealing the other half of his budget will help Bush avoid the trap that much-idolized former President Ronald Reagan fell into. Reagan, like Bush, came to the White House promising a tax cut. He got it, but Congress didn't seem to remember that when they drew up appropriations bills. This is what caused the deficits and growing debt that are considered characteristic of the Reagan years.

Bush has been reduced to begging for votes. He has taken to touring the home states of impressionable Senators, hoping to raise support among their constituents to pressure the Senators into voting for the tax cut. His arguments in Washington, meanwhile, have gone from "the tax cut is good" to "you owe me." Bush and Cheney have been reminding Republican Senators that they owe their committee chairmanships and what control they salvaged in the power-sharing agreement to Cheney's tiebreaking vote. Whether the nation should have a tax cut has become less important. What is key, according to these arguments, is solidifying the power of the Republican Party in the government. This sounds dangerously like a last resort argument, which does not bode well for Bush's ability to achieve his agenda.

If Bush wants to have a successful first year in office, he needs to get his tax cut passed. But to make his tax cut effective (and set him on the road to reelection) he needs to make Congress aware of how he intends for them to live within their constricted means. Instead of letting Congress have its way with his budget, he needs to lay down his whole plan.

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