Bush's risky tax-cut power play

Show of strength could prove canny, letting compromise come later. But he may lose Senate Democrats' support.

Democratic congressman John Tanner had been looking forward to working with George W. Bush - even more so than with Bill Clinton.

The representative from Tennessee liked President Bush's talk about changing the tone in Washington and working across party lines to get things done. And he was open to many of the new president's policy proposals - like the need for tax relief.

But suddenly, all that has changed. Today, the first phase of Mr. Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut will be voted on the House floor - to the dismay of Democrats, who say they were not consulted on the bill or allowed to offer up an alternative. To many members, the Bush honeymoon is over.

"It's hard to talk about civility when you're getting trampled by sheer power and numbers," says Mr. Tanner. "You just have to hunker down and take it like a Texas jack rabbit in a hailstorm." To some extent, the Democrats' cries of outrage may be sour grapes - the simple frustration of being in the minority. And the Bush team could prove wise to play up their strength in the early stages of the tax fight, putting off compromise until later.

But the next few weeks may determine whether the White House miscalculated. Already, the strong-arm tactics are poisoning relations in Congress, and could rob the president of Democratic votes he will need down the line - especially in the 50-50 Senate, where the outcome of many of his initiatives, like the tax bill, will be settled.

Indeed, a number of moderate Democrats in the Senate are saying today's House vote could scuttle prospects for bipartisan work on all fronts.

"You cannot have bipartisanship in only one chamber and expect it to work," says Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, who was tapped early by the White House as a prospect for developing bipartisan policy on issues such as Medicare reform. "Not being consulted in committee on this tax bill, not being allowed to present an alternative plan on the floor of the House, all this makes a sham of bipartisanship."

Many conservative Democrats were eager to vote for a tax cut, even a big one. But they told Bush that they needed to reach a budget resolution first, to make sure the country could afford to cut taxes and still fund priorities, such as saving Social Security and paying down the debt.

Instead, the tax package was rushed to mark-up in the House Ways and Means Committee, and then to today's floor vote. All without even the appearance of discussion with Democrats about its timing or content.

And that's not the only concern on the House side. House Democrats are angry at the committee ratios assigned by the GOP leadership. And members of the Congressional Black Caucus are disturbed that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has not yet set up his promised bipartisan commission to look into electoral reforms after the Florida recount debacle.

As a result, some Democrats are urging their leadership to boycott the biennial House civility retreat, which begins tomorrow. These retreats began in 1997 to help resolve what had become a crisis of civility in the House, after the 1995 Republican takeover.

"Republicans weren't accustomed to being in the majority, and Democrats weren't used to being in the minority," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Program at the University of Pennsylvania and author of three reports on civility in the US House of Representatives.

After the GOP takeover, "there was resentment," she recalls. "It was a very ugly session."

A second retreat was called in 1999, just after the impeachment of President Clinton.

The latest civility report, to be presented at this weekend's retreat, will actually show progress on the issue, says Ms. Jamieson: "Now, people representing each side often go out of their way to indicate that they respect the other person."

And there's evidence that both sides are trying to maintain positive relations. House minority leader Richard Gephardt signed a joint letter with Speaker Hastert last week, encouraging members to attend the retreat (although he agreed to sign the letter only after Hastert agreed to add another Democrat to the House Appropriations Committee).

"It's not a promising sign that we still don't have an agreement on election reform, and that they're going forward with the tax bill without a budget," says Sue Harvey, a spokeswoman for Gephardt. "But we're still hopeful. We'll work with them, and we'll go to the retreat,"

Moderate Republicans say there is still time to work out agreements that signal respect for both sides - and to prevent the 107th from slipping back into bitter partisanship and gridlock.

"There's a lot of simmering underneath the surface that is not particularly good," says Rep. Amo Houghton (R) of New York, a founder of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which encourages bipartisan cooperation. "But with people of good will and a little good faith, we can cure this."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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