Daschle's Do-No-Harm Congress

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Cheney discusses bin Laden's ties to the terrorist attacks on 'Meet the Press'

For lawmakers, the Sunday morning political talk shows are a forum for positioning, not analysis, and so when Minority Leader Trent Lott calls the Senate a "black hole of inaction" and wonders if it's time to "cut bait" on an economic stimulus package, you have to consider that at least partly bluff. But when the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Majority Whip Harry Reid, declares legislative black holes a good thing — "Thank goodness we're here and we're in control of the Senate" — you have to consider the possibility that America will not be getting an economic stimulus package for Christmas this year.

That probably wouldn't be so bad for the economy in the short term — Wall Street has largely shifted its attention to corporate profits, and has had plenty of time to get used to the idea of disappointment from Washington. But the stimulus package that wasn't (if indeed it isn't) may turn out to be the Fort Sumter of fiscal policy for the rest of the next expansion — and that's something economists and politicians alike should be paying attention to.

The subtext of the stimulus fight is the same one that's been bubbling in Washington since long before Sept. 11 — tax cuts, and whether the future should include more of them, or less. The Republicans are using Sept. 11 as the reason to cut rates faster and deeper and put in place a fiscal structure built for growth; the Democrats are using the future as the reason to stop the madness now, before America wakes up and finds itself back in the same riptide of red ink as 1992.

Some Democrats want to spend more money instead of cutting taxes; some just want smaller, cheaper tax cuts. But as the work-fast, work-together patriotic obligations of Sept. 11 recede farther and farther into political history, 2002 is getting close and even 2004 isn't as far away as it used to be. And Tom Daschle seems to have Democrats united behind him in the bigger purpose — bottle up the Republicans, ring those direction-of-the-country alarms and let the voters sort it out.

Politically, it's a bit of a gamble. Won't the voters savage any Congress that does nothing at a time like this? The blame for this particular stalemate can be laid clearly at the feet of the Democrats — the Republican-led House at least passed a bill, while Daschle made sure nothing at all got through the Democratic Senate. The recession is in full swing, unemployment keeps rising, consumer confidence keeps teetering on the edge of the abyss — shouldn't somebody in Washington be doing something to help?

But when Bush, 13 weeks after the disaster, is still making public calls for Americans to call their congressmen about more tax relief, Democrats clearly aren't feeling any intolerable heat from voters. And Daschle, whose position allows him to block legislation he hates but not to pass legislation he likes, looks like he's content to stall, stall, stall, until the air clears and people start watching Congress for issues again. And when they do, the Democrats will have the usual list of items to put up against Bush's tax cuts — and the usual complaints that those cuts are leading a nation into the red under false pretenses.

The Dems' list: Saving Social Security. Nursing Medicare. Boosting homeland defense — this one gets included to keep Democrats seeming current — and education, and reining in Bush's rapacious energy program. And putting them all up against tax cuts as a simple choice: Invest in America's future — the fiscally sound way — or flush it all down the drain. These issues have polled positively for Democrats since Bill Clinton, and their Republican colleagues still haven't grown any Bush coattails. And if Daschle figures if he can play tax cuts to a stalemate when Republicans have the House and the White House, he might just be able to turn them against their masters when this whole "emergency" thing has blown over.

He'll have the budget reports that say the U.S. will be running deficits through 2004. He'll have the analyses that insist it was Bush's tax cut, not Sept. 11 or defense spending, that did it. And he'll have the potent economic argument that the only sure way for Washington to kick off another ten-year expansion — like the one, ahem, that just ended under the new guy — is to put the budget back in balance and soothe the savage bond markets that run up long-term interest rates when the feds run up the debt. (The economic ideal would be tax cuts and a balanced budget, but when was the last time that happened?)

Yes, the Democrats lost this fight only last year, to the tune of a heavily Bush-leaning $1.3 trillion compromise — and the appetite of people for tax cuts doesn't go generally down when times are tough. But remember, that tax cut got through largely on the wiggle room provided by those monster budget surpluses, and that rationalization — that America could have it all ways — is all gone. Daschle needn't even hit too hard on the tax bill that, after all, 10 of his compatriots helped pass — all he's got to say is that the surpluses are gone (ahem) the economy may not be the IRS cash cow it was in the late '90s (ahem again) and that the post Sept. 11 world is going to require spending on necessaries and saving for the demographic looting of entitlement programs to come.

So where was Daschle on Sunday? Letting Harry Reid do the snarling, waiting to see if stopping the Republicans is enough of a battle cry for a Democrat-led Senate to get by on and standing by to swoop in with a compromise if the national mood demands it. But if Daschle can spike the stimulus package and get away with it, then it has an even better chance of working nine months from now in 2002. And if it works in the 2002 mid-terms, well, "I led the do-no-harm Congress" is a good a campaign slogan as any.