GOP hopes to capitalize on war bounce on Hill

President Bush, getting personally involved, pushes his tax cut, expected to pass.

While the nation is focused on the war in Iraq, President Bush is closing in on a big win at home.

His signature domestic initiative - a second major tax cut - looks likely to pass at nearly the size he proposed.

The measure, which would slash taxes on stock dividends and accelerate the broad-based cuts passed in 2001, could still be derailed or scaled back in future.

But in a key vote in the Senate tomorrow, the president appears poised to win crucial majority support for incorporating a $626 billion tax-cut package into the federal budget for 2004. The House has already approved the full amount Bush requested - $726 billion.

"The president's popularity does translate into more support for tax cuts ... and unimaginable deficits," says Stanley Collender, a top budget analyst in Washington with Fleischman-Hillard.

But he adds that "if moderates get religion and realize what they are doing," the vote could get tighter when it comes time to implement those cuts.

By including the measure in the budget, Bush and his allies in Congress are escaping the need - faced by most Senate bills - of garnering 60 votes or face the risk of being quashed by an opposition fililbuster.

The president has, until now, stayed largely out of the budget fray. He left the budget battles in the hands of GOP congressional leaders and Cabinet secretaries. But following the unveiling of long anticipated war cost estimates on Monday and a key Senate vote tomorrow, President Bush is expected to make personal appeals in the push for a fiscal 2004 budget.

Buoyed by an expected spike in approval ratings as US forces took the field in Iraq last week, he is also using the rationale of wartime unity to squeeze out those last swing votes in the Senate.

"Bush has managed to use the war and solidarity around the war to keep Republicans in line and make the Democrats wary of going against him even though this budget resolution is not directly related to war," says Ronald Rapoport, professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

If a tax cut makes it into the budget resolution, it doesn't mean it will become the law of the land. The budget document only sets a road map for votes later this year on taxes and appropriations - a point emphasized by several lawmakers casting controversial votes last week. However, it does make it much more likely. Under the protection of a budget resolution, the tax cut is also shielded from a filibuster on the floor of the Senate - the ultimate opposition weapon.

Still, the maneuvers at the midnight hour in both the House and Senate last week were at times as complex as the movement of columns of tanks in Iraq, and GOP leaders in both houses emphasized the comparison.

On the eve of the House vote on Thursday, Speaker Dennis Hastert told wavering GOP moderates that if they did not pass the budget resolution, it would undermine the president at a time of war.

In the end, the Republican budget resolution passed by a vote of 215-212, but only after the GOP leadership held the 15-minute vote open long enough to eke out the last few votes on the floor. Twelve Republicans voted with Democrats to oppose the resolution.

On the Senate side, the sound of arms wrenching is less audible. Both GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island are on record opposing a tax cut in any form - and on such distant terms with the White House that pressure is unlikely to be effective.

But, ironically, such opposition has worked to the White House advantage.

In a key vote last week, Senator McCain and Democrat Ernest Hollings of South Carolina did not support an amendment that would have halved the tax cut, prompting many other Democrats to change their vote after the amendment appeared headed for defeat.

Both described their vote as a matter of principle: no tax cuts when resources are needed to fight a war.

"He wanted to take a strong principled position on taxes, period. He opposes all nondefense spending increases as well," says an aide to Senator McCain.

In anticipation of new war costs, the Senate did back a Democratic amendment last week to shave $100 billion off the president's tax cut. GOP aides say that if this is not reversed in tomorrow's vote it will be revisited when House and Senate conferees meet in conference to reconcile differences.

Still, there are deep reservations in Republican ranks toward courting huge budget deficits, even at a time of war. In addition, the Senate Democrats who were with the White House in the fight for a $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001 are opposing significant additions to them.

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