How Bush's Tax Cut Got Taken Out to a Vermont Woodshed

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Dick Cheney, right, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott discuss the budget

This was supposed to be the week when Dick Cheney got really busy.

The Senate floor debate over President Bush's budget kicked off Tuesday with the vice president's first tie-breaking vote, which determined the passage, 51-50, of an amendment — just trust us on this one — to cancel out another, Democratic amendment to slice off $158 billion of Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut for a prescription-drug addition to Medicare. (The GOP amendment found the money elsewhere.)

"Welcome to the chamber," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) jokingly told the vice president. "We hope you'll stick around to break the next tie."

To which Cheney replied, "That is my intention." And suddenly the Bush budget, which Trent Lott wants passed before senators head home for Easter recess at week's end, looked as if it was headed into a dramatic string of party-line, 51-50 votes that would at the very least make for a big tax cut and a heck of a story.

But as the battle of amendments continued on Wednesday, Cheney stayed on the sidelines — and not because the White House was suddenly awash in converts. The Senate voted 53-47 in favor of an amendment by proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to take $450 billion of tax-cut money and redirect $225 billion to federal education programs and another $225 billion to debt repayment.

The vote isn't on the books yet — Lott, after learning of Republican defections, voted in favor in order to allow a revote once he'd had a chance to twist some arms — but it was enough for head Democrat Tom Daschle to seize on it as "a repudiation of the President's policies and priorities." And after Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.) announced earlier in the day that he was ready to defect on the overall budget — "unless a miracle occurs, I fear I'm bending in that direction" — it was pretty clear Cheney's presence was only going to be a reminder that the White House was in danger of having its biggest legislative must-win slip through its fingers.

And then Bush's next-biggest enemy reared its head: time. A visibly doddering Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) leafed through newspaper clippings and entertained interruptions from fellow senators for 45 minutes before finally passing the baton. A mini-debate ensued about how this White House's procedural behavior — the actual budget hasn't arrived yet; the Senate is working from the guidelines passed by the House — compared with the similarly new Clinton administration's in 1993. (That budget passed 51-50 with Al Gore's vote, if you'll recall, and worked out rather well for the White House.) And the minority whip reminded the gathering that the Democrats alone had 120 amendments in the wings — wouldn't everybody rather do this after Easter?

The Republicans would prefer not to. Bush and Lott have been hoping to use economic urgency to get retroactive tax cuts, Bush's $1.6 trillion in long-term tax cuts, and the overall budget resolution passed by Friday, and with Lott and Mitch McConnell at the controls it still may happen. But with Bush's $1.6 trillion trophy already down to $1.15 trillion, however theoretically, speed may no longer be working to the White House's advantage.

And Cheney may not be as busy as he'd hoped.