How Bush's tax cut will play in the Senate

Lobbying blitz centers on few moderates. In 50-50 chamber, one vote can be a veto.

The Bush tax cut blitzed through the House last week on a near party-line vote - every Republican, plus 10 Democrats. A textbook win, played hard and fast.

But in the battle for the 50-50 Senate, individuals count. And the White House - and Republican lobbyists - are already gearing up to win over senators one vote at a time.

"Because it's 50-50 in the Senate, it has to be a bipartisan effort," says a senior GOP aide. "The Senate is different than the House. Relationships matter."

Even as the House vote was being tallied, President Bush was setting up his play for the Senate with big rallies in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Louisiana - states Bush carried that are represented by Democrats in the Senate. Today he visits Florida, where another Democratic senator might be swayed by calls and e-mails from constituents.

"I'm here today to ask for you - if you like what you hear today - to maybe e-mail some of the good folks from the United States Senate from your state," Bush said in Fargo, N.D., last week.

Democrats quickly changed plane reservations to be back in their home states to counter this Air Force One diplomacy. Minority leader Tom Daschle - who first learned about the president's visit to South Dakota from press reports - quickly organized his own campaign-style tour though his state to make the Democrats' case for a smaller, "fairer" tax cut.

"Our plan gives the majority of benefits to the majority of South Dakota taxpayers," says Senator Daschle. He adds that the $1.6 trillion Bush tax cut will force cuts in the next federal budget for agriculture, disaster relief, and highway funds that could hurt South Dakotans.

To reinforce the president's message, a Republican group is launching radio ads in South Dakota, Louisiana, and Georgia today aimed at Democratic senators up for reelection next year.

The controversial ads use a taped excerpt from a 1962 speech by President Kennedy to make the case for an across-the-board tax cut, including those in the highest tax brackets: "You know that if Jack Kennedy can support a tax cut in 1962, [Louisiana Sen.] Mary Landrieu can [today]."

"We know for a fact that not a single Democrat railed against [the Kennedy plan] as a tax cut for the rich," says Keith Appell, a spokesman for the Washington-based Issues Management Center, a GOP activist group.

(On Friday, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts called the use of his slain brother's voice in such an ad "indecent." "There were entirely different conditions at that time.")

Despite the early lobbying, GOP leaders insist that, when the debate does begin in the Senate, it will be far more bipartisan and collegial than it was in the House. "Our goal is to try to find a bill that will have total Republican support and a lot of Democrats, too," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Neither goal will be easy. Two moderate Republicans, Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and James Jeffords of Vermont, have already said they cannot support a tax cut as high as $1.6 trillion. Five other GOP centrists urge incorporating a trigger mechanism that would adjust the tax cut or government spending plans if anticipated budget surpluses do not materialize.

"We want to be sure that our tax-cut initiatives and spending initiatives are predicated on actual budget outcomes," says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, who co-sponsored this proposal with Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana.

Moderates on both sides of the aisle say that the "my way or the highway" approach in the House will fail in the Senate.

"Senator Chafee is concerned that the manner in which this tax cut was handled in the House is creating the perception that the new administration is overly partisan in pursuing its goals," says Jeff Neal, a spokesman for the Rhode Island lawmaker. "In the long run, it could hurt the administration's ability to carry out the rest of his agenda."

Moves are already under way to accommodate concerns of GOP moderates. While the White House still opposes triggers, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa says he might be open to the idea.

"I do not like a trigger.... On the other hand, we have a lot of our colleagues that ... think it's a silver bullet. I'm willing to see what they can come up with and what is needed," he says.

So far, only one Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller (D) of Georgia, has endorsed the Bush tax cut. He is likely to be balanced by Sen. Chafee, who has signaled that he won't accept a reduction much bigger than $500 billion.

But the White House is counting on new pressure on Democrats in Bush states, especially in the South, to make the difference.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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