Why You Shouldn't Expect a Tax Cut Until at Least April

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Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, right, and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)

What a difference a majority makes.

As House Republicans hustle the hot-potato centerpiece of George W. Bush's tax cut — $958 billion in marginal rate reductions — toward a brusque party-line passage this week, in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats are making sure things go nice and slow.

"The way to do this is to have a more thoughtful debate in the context of a budget," a spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus of Montana said Monday. Translation: No tax cut will hit the Senate floor until at least April, when the 2002 budget as a whole arrives from across the Capitol. And even then it's going to get a good going-over.

The House has sweetened Bush's plan even further, making the initial drop in the lowest bracket (from 15 percent to 12 percent) retroactive to Jan. 1, 2001. That bracket drops to 10 percent in 2006. The rest of the plan would gradually shrink the current five income tax rates of 15 percent, 28 percent, 31 percent, 36 percent and 39.6 percent to four — 10 percent, 15 percent, 25 percent and 33 percent — by 2006.

Senate Democrats, whose entire rival tax cut proposal costs less than Bush's marginal rate cuts, would rather there be no across-the-board cuts at all. With a GOP majority in the House and Bush in the Oval Office, they'll have to start negotiating eventually. But when Baucus and the other 10 Democrats on the 20-member Senate Finance Committee sit around the table for hearings Wednesday, it'll be angry soundbite time.

Because these guys are some of the red-state Democrats on whose welcome mat Bush has been wiping his feet ever since his speech to Congress last Tuesday. Last week, Bush looked in on constituents of Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas) and Baucus (Montana); next week, he'll hold events on the home turf of John Breaux (Louisiana), Kent Conrad (North Dakota) and even Tom Daschle (South Dakota).

The idea is quite baldly to get the calls and letters flooding into some key Senate offices — at the White House on Monday, Bush deadpanned that there was "some methodology to my travels" — and Wednesday will be when any Democrats feeling heat get to make a loud case against the plan for the benefit of the papers back home.

Will anything get done? Absolutely not — hearings are for grandstanding, not negotiating (though the two are cart and horse), and the witnesses' main task will be to serve as straight men. After all, with the House vote a few days away (in which they get to see how well Gephardt is able to hold his troops together), they're in no particular hurry — and they've got the numbers to hold this thing up for quite a while.

Even Trent Lott, bowing to the realities of his joint-checking-account relationship with Daschle, is tapping the brake. "The Senate is going to be more inclined to take up the entire package" after the budget is passed later in the spring, Lott said Monday. "Our goal is to try to find a bill that will have total Republican support and a lot of Democrats, too."

That could take a while.