Less than 48 hours after Bush's Tuesday speech, Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas began escorting the core of the Bush cut those marginal rate reductions representing $958 billion of the total cost through his committee on Thursday with a view to passing it through the full House next week, presumably by party-line votes in both places.
With both parties acknowledging that passage into law is probably months away, the political cover for the big hurry (the emergency rescue of a sagging U.S. economy) was a bit disingenuous, and the preemptive-strike rhetoric even more so. "I think the minority leader would be willing to discuss this all summer as the economy goes into the tank," Thomas said Wednesday.
But there wasn't much House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt could do about it Thursday except squawk as loudly as he could "This is the most irresponsible legislative act that I've ever seen, a rush to judgment," said Gephardt and try to soften the political ground in the one place where Bush needs Democratic votes badly enough to negotiate a little: the 50-50 Senate.
The Democrats air their plan
Which is why top Senate Democrat Tom Daschle did most of the talking when he and Gephardt took to the microphones Thursday and introduced a budget of their own, which leans politically on "a hedge" against those rosy surplus projections' coming up crabgrass.
Daschle's 10-year plan divides the $2.7 trillion projected nonSocial Security surplus into thirds $900 billion for tax cuts (vs. Bush's $1.6 trillion), $900 billion for additional spending, and $900 billion for additional debt reduction, above and beyond the Social Security surplus. (Bush's debt reduction comes exclusively from the Social Security surplus.) And he thinks that with some moderate Republicans in the Senate publicly worrying that Bush's plan is cutting things a bit too close, he'll be able to meet them somewhere in the middle.
"We hope our Republican colleagues will look at our plan," Daschle said. "If they do, we think they'll like what they see."
The death-tax factor
Daschle has the votes to stall any tax-cut passage at least until the whole budget hits the floor, meaning that actual tax relief of any kind has no chance of hitting Bush's desk until April. And to get moderate Republicans and southern Democrats on board, Bush may have to give up something.
That likelihood is presaged by Thomas's settling on a piece-by-piece passage strategy, even in the side of Congress where Bush has the votes. The $958 billion in marginal rate adjustments are straightforward and evenhanded, and don't skew rich very much at all the death tax repeal does most of that so they'll be that much harder to resist politically.
Quick House passage makes the GOP look productive and the Democrats look like foot-draggers, and gets the American people used to the idea that something in the way of a tax rebate is headed their way.
Then it'll be up to Bush to get them wanting more.