Risks for GOP in major tax cuts

House poised to vote on $800 billion GOP plan, despite public disinterest.

Congressional Republicans' multibillion-dollar tax-cut campaign, unveiled with fife-and-drum corps rallies and calls for "financial freedom," has so far elicited a ho-hum response from the public.

Unlike the 1980's tax revolts, in today's robust economy there is no groundswell of Americans clamoring for tax relief from Capitol Hill.

Even more unsettling to the GOP leadership, more than a dozen Republican lawmakers have threatened to bolt over the size and contents of the nearly $800 billion, 10-year package, jeopardizing its chances for passage this week in the narrowly controlled House.

Nevertheless, the party trudges onward in its battle against taxation. Why?

"God put Republicans on earth to cut taxes," says Dan Mitchell of the conservative Heritage Foundation here. "That is the underlying vision that propels this 'cut-taxes-or-die' approach."

A range of powerful forces - ideology, history, and political jousting before the 2000 election - has made tax cuts the overriding issue of Republicans leading Congress today.

In fact, analysts say, tax relief is perhaps the only major domestic issue that Republicans can convincingly lay claim to at a time when traditionally Democratic causes, such as Social Security and Medicare, are at the forefront. "It's still their strong suit," says Mr. Mitchell. "Even if no one is watching you play cards, you still play your strong suit."

Historically, Republicans have opposed federal income taxes virtually since the system was established in 1913, replacing tariffs on imported goods as the main source of government revenue. The ideological imperatives of countless past debates are echoed in today's calls for limited government and relief for overtaxed Americans - especially for those who pay the most.

"Principally, the debate about taxes is about freedom," says Rep. Steve Chabot (R) of Ohio. "If you let people keep more of their own money, people will have more freedom to live their lives as they see fit, not as the government sees fit."

Moreover, at a time of mounting budget surpluses, many Republicans see a compelling economic rationale for curbing taxes to stimulate growth. The alternative, keeping the extra revenue in Washington, will only guarantee politicians will spend it, they say.

The political strategy behind the GOP's proposed tax reductions - the biggest since the Reagan-era cuts in 1981 - centers on setting Republicans apart from Democrats in the heated 2000 race for control of Congress.

As campaign season gets under way, Republicans anticipate that a strong antitax stance will solidify support from the party's conservative constituents. "They are rallying their base," says Ronald Peters, director of congressional studies at the University of Oklahoma at Norman.

Democratic opposition to the House GOP tax bill represents "a great line of demarcation" between the parties, says House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R) of Texas, the bill's main promoter.

Indeed, congressional Democrats and the White House have criticized the GOP bill as "risky" and "irresponsible." They estimate its costs could mount to $3 trillion over 20 years, threatening efforts to shore up Social Security and Medicare and eliminate the national debt - all charges Republicans reject.

House Democrats this week planned to unveil their own, more modest, $250-billion tax-relief plan. It emphasizes targeted relief for married couples, small businesses, and individuals who pay for their own health insurance rather than the across-the-board cuts that constitute the bulk of Representative Archer's bill.

Ultimately, unless Republicans and Democrats can converge on some middle-of-the-road measure - something GOP leaders indicate they're unlikely to do - President Clinton has signalled he will veto the GOP tax bill.

Even before that, however, Republicans face a challenge in uniting members of their own party behind the tax proposals - especially in the House where they hold only a 222-to-211 majority.

Strong concerns among a group of moderate House Republicans over the size of the Archer tax bill led Rep. Michael Castle (R) Delaware this week to propose a scaled back, $500 billion plan. GOP moderates, such as Ray LaHood of Illinois and Fred Upton of Michigan, seek to use the surplus first to eliminate the $5.6 trillion national debt, as well as for some spending programs.

House leaders last week already trimmed the $864 billion Archer bill to match the size of the $792 billion Senate tax bill, both to avoid a technical snag but also indirectly to address moderates' concerns. "Hopefully, the leadership won't bring a bill to the floor that won't pass," says Ways and Means Committee GOP spokesman Trent Duffy.

Politically, if the tax cuts end up being mere talk, the GOP could suffer. While Americans generally trust Republicans more than Democrats to hold taxes down, some recent polls have shown the parties in a dead heat. Also, the public is skeptical tax cuts would be equitable - if they happen at all.

In polls on government priorities, Democratic issues such as Social Security, Medicare, and education consistently outrank tax cuts.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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