Now the Tax Cut Is in the Hands of the Voters

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Republicans in the House and Senate passed their $792 billion tax cut Thursday night, so we know they want it -– or at least want to be able to tell everyone they do. We know Bill Clinton is dead-set against it -– "I will have no choice but to veto it immediately" –- and the Democrats, so far, are sticking by their fearless leader. But how about the voters? Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly favor lower taxes -– who wouldn’t? - until they’re reminded that there’s only so much money to go around. Put a big tax cut against saving Medicare, and that support all but disappears. The same thing happens when respondents are faced with a choice between tax cuts and saving Social Security, or tax cuts and keeping the budgets balanced. For the most part, Americans only want a their money back if they’re sure the government can spare it.

The Republicans insist it can; the Democrats doubt it. Who’s right depends on continued economic good times and the fiscal discipline of future governments -– neither one of which you ought to be betting the farm on -– and now both sides are headed home for a one-month recess to make their case. TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan says each side will be preaching to the choir. "Democrats will make the argument that’s been successful with their base thus far -- Clinton is saving Medicare and paying down the debt, and Republicans are merely helping the rich." They’ve got a point: According to the Treasury Department, the middle 60 percent of American families would have gotten 33 percent of the tax breaks under the original Senate plan –- not a lot to begin with -- but only 21 percent of the cuts in the final bill. The top 20 percent are slated for the remaining 79 percent. Republicans don’t disagree –- they’ve got plenty of voters making more than $82,000 a year -– but respond that these are the folks that pay most of the taxes in the first place. "Rich people do pay more taxes," says Branegan. "But pointing that out may not help them with voters." Well, the election’s still a ways away. And an argument like that will sure help them with contributors.