To pass tax cut, Bush needs support of 'Mod Squad'

Group of moderate Republicans - and centrist Democrats - will play critical role.

Mary Landrieu is a Democrat from Louisiana who has voted for every Republican tax cut that has come up in the past two years. She voted to repeal the estate tax. She voted to end the marriage penalty. She voted to cut capital gains.

Now Republicans are counting on the senator's support for the biggest rollback in 20 years: President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax initiative. Her decision - and those of a handful of other centrists in the US Senate - will likely determine if Mr. Bush's ambitious plan becomes reality or just the source of talk-show ridicule.

True, the president needs to garner the support of virtually all Republicans in the Senate if he is to prevail, and some GOP lawmakers are intent on larding any tax bill with more cuts.

Yet, as the president fans out across the country this week to build support, he and his backers know the success of his plan will hinge largely on a few "swing" politicians. Among those to watch: James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine - and Ms. Landrieu.

"If she [Landrieu] doesn't vote for it, she is going to pay a price for it," Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi told reporters this week. Translation: Louisiana voters gave Bush an eight-point edge in November's election, and Senator Landrieu should remember she's up for reelection in 2002.

Yet Democrats aren't conceding her vote, and Landrieu herself is moving cautiously on the Great Tax Debate of 2001. She remembers what happened to rosy budget projections in Louisiana when oil prices tanked in the early 1980s, during her first term as a 20-something state legislator.

Later, while state treasurer, she was still coping with the wreckage. "It may look like we're sitting on this big pile of money, but it's just a big pile of projections at this point," says Landrieu aide Rich Masters. "She's concerned about whether that pile of money will materialize."

She's also thinking about the military housing she saw at Fort Polk, La., last week - contaminated with mold and unfit for soldiers. Landrieu wants to see military increases factored into the 10-year spending picture before deciding whether $1.6 trillion is a cut the country can afford.

In a Senate split 50-50, these centrist votes are critical - on both sides of the aisle. Zell Miller (D) of Georgia announced his support for the Bush tax cut early. Appointed to fill out the term of the late Paul Coverdell, Mr. Miller told constituents that he wouldn't break with the main policy lines of his GOP predecessor. Georgia broke 12 points for Bush.

"The president can't get a significant tax cut without picking up a few moderates," says James Thurber, a congressional analyst at American University here. "Almost anybody that has five votes can defeat this thing."

But votes gained at the center can also be lost there. As Democrats in states Bush carried in the fall feel pressure from constituents for a big tax cut, moderate Republicans in Gore states are moving in the other direction.

From the start, congressional Republicans were cool to big cuts when Bush proposed them as a candidate. Even the GOP leadership said it couldn't be done.

First GOP senator to balk

Now, for party centrists, it's an even tougher call. Mr. Jeffords is the first Republican senator to oppose the Bush plan. He says that the $1.6 trillion cut is too high: It doesn't do enough for low- and moderate-income people.

But he raised these objections gently - no television, no big press event. Just an interview with a local Vermont paper. While President Clinton dubbed Jeffords his "favorite Republican," the senator doesn't want to be seen as a GOP dissident. Aides insist that he is keeping open lines of communication to the White House.

So are other members of the Wednesday Lunch Group, or "Mod Squad," all GOP centrists who now share doubts about a big tax cut. Ms. Snowe of Maine is urging a trigger mechanism to put tax cuts on hold if surpluses fall short of projections.

For Senator Chafee of Rhode Island, the key issue is debt reduction. A $1.6 trillion cut is "too much, too soon," he says. It increases by $400 billion the amount the nation pays on its debt over 10 years. That money could be better spent on a prescription drug benefit or investments in education, he says.

Chafee calls himself the last of the GOP liberals, and has made a political career in a Democratic state. As mayor of Warwick, R.I., he had only one Republican on the city council. In Election 2000, Rhode Island voters opted for Gore by a 29-point margin. He sees working with Democrats as the only way to get things done.

Cheney as compromiser

So far, these moderates say they have not been at the receiving end of arm twisting from the White House. That may come.

"In the end, some of these Republican moderates will fall in line because they will not defy the president on his main priority," says Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

A key to making that happen is Vice President Dick Cheney, who is becoming a key player in working out legislative compromises on the Hill. "For senators, he [Cheney] is the way you get a direct link to the White House," says Mr. Wittmann. "He will likely be in the chair for that final vote, and may even cast the decisive vote."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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