But now it's budget time. Tax cut time. Bush time. Trent Lott wants to get his president a budget deal by Friday, and now he figures his colleagues are going to pay him back for their frivolity. McConnell's Darth Vader helmet is off; he's back to being chairman of the Rules Committee, the setter of the Senate pace. And for McCain formerly Luke Skywalker it's probably time to go back to being the Republican who stood next to George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention and forgot he didn't like his tax cut.
Because now the leadership is counting on his vote. After Lott declared last week that "we will have the votes," his head count was the subject of some debate as this week began. Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was "rather confident," while his counterpart, Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) replied that "as of a few hours ago, they did not have the votes to pass this budget resolution." Head Democrat Tom Daschle said there was a "real possibility that we could bring down the size of this ill-advised tax cut."
Stabilizing the swing votes
The starting point for any count is 50-50, with Georgia Democrat Zell Miller on board the Bush plan and Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee siding with the Democrats. Enter the back-scratching: Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords says he could bolt if Republicans don't give him a $180 billion plan to fully fund the federal share of education programs; Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson as a narrowly elected red-state Democrat, a prime target for Bush blackmail is talking to GOP leaders about farm programs. And Chafee may yet yield to the hard party sell: "The President feels strongly about it, and that was conveyed," Chafee said Monday.
Let the games begin. Bush wants make that needs a legislative victory on something resembling his $1.9 trillion fiscal 2002 budget (centerpiece: 4 percent growth in government spending), and the 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut therein. Democrats want something small enough to at least claim the mantle of the party that keeps the Republicans in line. With the outcome at least nominally setting America's fiscal course for the next decade, the 2002 elections and the balance of the Bush presidency would seem to be on the line.
Enter the economy. Two weeks ago, Democrats seized on the fact that Bush's back-loaded tax plan which dates back to a primary fight with Steve Forbes and was designed at the time not to over-stimulate a booming economy does not quite jibe with his gloomy talk about the current economic lethargy. They introduced a $60 billion instant tax cut meant to let the air out of Bush's tires by removing the urgency from the debate over the $1.6 trillion version. But last week Bush caught up, throwing his support behind a retroactive cut on the condition that both tax cuts be considered simultaneously.
Time is of the essence
And when Tom Daschle couldn't stretch out campaign finance reform long enough to push the full budget debate until May, Bush and the Republican leadership won. Lott has promised that some form of the Bush budget will get though the Senate if they have to stay up all night voting. McConnell will set the pace. And the urgency that the Democrats almost turned against Bush and his disconnected rhetoric is now back on the President's side. After all, what better excuse is there for compromising than the fact that U.S. consumers need their stimulus ASAP?
Not that a compromise is a sure thing. If the White House can hang on to Jeffords and the other itchy GOP moderates including McCain all it needs is Dick Cheney to break the tie and the Democrats will find that their $60 billion gambit just got added on to the top of Bush's serving. But Bush would still prefer this to be a bipartisan-smelling victory, and he'll need to give up more than Nelson's farm programs for that. Maybe the estate tax repeal, maybe the reduction in the top income-tax bracket, maybe the trigger.
If Bush's fiscal-policy habits in Texas propose the bill, sign whatever comes back from the legislature, take credit no matter what it looks like are any indicator, he'll happily take what Lott can get him and call it a win.
As long as it happens this week.