Bush tax cut faces first big test in divided Senate

Coming vote on budget resolution may signal how Bush plan will fare. Cheney is standing by to break ties.

In the US House of Representatives, President Bush's tax-cut plan is racking up big votes about as effortlessly as buds are popping blossoms along the Tidal Basin.

"It's a pleasant time," says House majority leader Dick Armey. The trees are flowering, the lilacs are coming, and soon, "we'll have the budget done," he says.

But over on the other side of Congress, it's a far less pleasant scene. This week, Mr. Bush is facing the first big test of whether his budget - or anything like it - can prevail in a perfectly divided Senate.

Usually, the budget resolution, which the Senate is expected to vote on tomorrow, is a quiet, inside-the-Beltway affair. It basically sets budget targets for the next fiscal year, including caps for spending on defense, foreign, and domestic programs, and guides the rest of the budgetary process. It can be changed down the line.

This year, however, it's a very big deal, because it incorporates Bush's controversial $1.6 trillion tax cut. The success or failure of the resolution will be an early signal of how the president's whole legislative package will fare.

"No vote I've cast in 28 years has more implications about the future of everything I care for than the budget resolution - especially for what it implies about the tax vote," says Sen. Joseph Biden (D).

With the stakes this high, Vice President Dick Cheney is staying close to his office near the Senate floor - in case he's needed to break tie votes (this has already happened on one proposal and may happen several more times before the final vote). And senators have suddenly become very solicitous of the Senate parliamentarian, Robert Dove - the arbiter in procedural battles that can forever delay votes or otherwise sink bills.

Democrats are concerned about the fact that they will have to vote on this resolution before seeing the final details of the president's budget - including specific spending cuts. They also object to the GOP leadership's decision to bypass the Senate Budget Committee and take the issue directly to the floor.

"No [committee] markup. No president's budget. It's as unfair as anything I've seen since I've been leader," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. "Three good months of comity and good partnership could all be eliminated," he adds.

Early this week, Democrats said they would oppose even bringing a budget resolution to the floor. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia warned that the GOP strategy violated Senate procedures and he would "argue against it vociferously," rule book in hand.

Republicans countered that the Senate parliamentarian would not rule against them - and they had Mr. Cheney to settle the issue if it came down to a 50-50 party-line fight. Democrats backed down.

But the biggest battle for GOP leaders may be an internal one. A handful of moderate Republicans have signaled real concerns with the president's tax plan, and may vote against it. They are now the object of intensive lobbying from all sides.

The most outspoken, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), sees Bush's tax cut as too high, and too risky to Social Security, Medicare, and a timely paydown of the national debt. A conspicuously gentle man, the Rhode Island senator made his living shoeing horses before he was sworn in to fill the term of his late father, Sen. John Chafee. He knows how to take a good kick - and kicks there have been. Still, he's not budging.

"If the $1.6 trillion tax cut is in [the resolution], I'll vote against it," he says.

Senator Chafee's expected no-vote will be balanced by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who has already announced support of the president's plan. But there are others on the fence.

Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont is holding out for "substantive budget increases in education" - $180 billion for starters, to fully fund federally mandated programs for children with disabilities. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins says she supports the budget, but wants some changes, especially to restore funding for home healthcare.

On the other side, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana - who could vote with the GOP on this issue - wants increases in Defense spending.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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