On the Tax Cut, Everybody's a Winner — Not!

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Rule one in politics: No matter how grim your defeat, smile and paint it as a victory. The Senate hadn't even finished voting on Bush's budget and tax cut on Friday when the stampede began for the Capitol's radio and TV studio.

First to get there were George W. Bush's Republican loyalists, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Majority Leader Trent Lott. We won the vote, they proclaimed, because the Senate passed by a 65-35 margin $1.3 trillion of the $1.6 trillion tax cut Bush had wanted. "I'm delighted," Cheney enthused.

Next came Democratic Sen. John Breaux and a half dozen other moderates. No, we won the vote. This was a "great victory" for moderates, Breaux claimed. They were the ones who brokered the compromise that resulted in the Senate approving $1.27 trillion of the $1.6 trillion tax that Bush wanted.

Next, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and the Democratic loyalists who fought Bush walked into the studio. This was a victory for Democrats, Daschle claimed. "We've made great progress." Bush wanted a $1.6 trillion tax cut but the Senate voted to give him only a $1.18 trillion cut.

Huh? How can three sides claim victory? If you have a winner, don't you also have to have a loser? And for that matter, what tax cut number did the Senate actually approve? Was it $1.3 trillion, $1.27 trillion, or $1.18 trillion?

The answer to the last question first. All three sides are using creative rounding to come up with a number that makes each of them look good. Bush wanted to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion over a 10-year period from 2002 to 2011. The Senate actually passed a $1.188 trillion tax cut for that 10-year period. But the Senate also approved an $85 billion rebate for this year to stimulate the ailing economy. To make it appear that the chamber came closer to Bush's number than what the Democrats wanted, Lott and Cheney add the $85 billion to the $1.188 trillion and then round the $1.273 trillion up to get to their $1.3 trillion number. Breaux's moderates originally proposed $1.25 trillion as a compromise tax cut number, so they're using $1.27 trillion because it's closer to what they wanted. Daschle and his allies originally proposed a $900 billion cut, so they're touting the $1.18 trillion number to show that the Senate ended up closer to what they wanted.

Enough with the numbers! So who won? Actually no one did.

Bush took a hard line up to the final vote, insisting that he had to have his $1.6 trillion cut and that there was no room to compromise. But even most Senate Republicans believed privately that his number was unrealistically high. His tax cut ended up being cut by as much as 26 percent, if you use Daschle's calculation — hardly a resounding victory.

Breaux's moderates didn't really broker a compromise. Lott simply stopped the voting on the tax cut when the number reached $1.273 trillion, fearing it would be whittled away even more if Senate Democratic continued offering amendments. The House has approved all of Bush's $1.6 trillion cut. When the two chambers go into conference to hammer out a final compromise, Lott intends to move the final number closer to $1.6 trillion and leave Breaux's compromise in the dust.

Daschle can't crow either. During last year's campaign, Democrats were willing to accept only a $500 billion tax cut. Even if you use $1.18 trillion as the tax cut the Senate passed, it's closer to Bush's original number than the Democrats'.

But who's counting. The important thing: Keep that smile on your face.