Beating Clinton, One Tax Bite at a Time?

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The Republicans taught Bill Clinton a lesson about Big Ideas when they rode the universal-health-care backlash to House and Senate majorities in 1994. Now they're taking their own advice. Unable for two years to build any serious momentum for a sweeping, across-the-board tax cut, they're passing its most marketable chunks one at a time. The best two are up this week — and look set to break the President's long run of victories over Congress:

The "marriage penalty": The 10-year, $182 billion "marriage penalty" tax cut had to pass the House all over again Wednesday (it first went through right before Valentine's Day). But it passed again by a nice bipartisan 269-159 margin, and the GOP has immunized it to keep outnumbered Senate Democrats, who with Clinton think it costs too much and benefits the rich, from filibustering it into submission like last time. The GOP wants some form of this bill on Clinton's desk in time for Philadelphia, and they're right on schedule. Should be a vote on Friday.'s Marriage Penalty Primer

The "death tax": More good naming and branding by usually inept GOP packagers — they even posed next to a coffin for this one. The Republicans have drummed up fervent support among small-business owners and farmers for their repeal of the estate tax, even though some say the Democrats' plan might actually help these groups more. But as long as the little guys stay on board for pathos, it will be hard for Democrats to capitalize much on the repeal's huge benefits for rich folk whose taxation stories don't moisten any eyes. Trent Lott is getting this one through the Senate by cutting a deal with Democrat chief Daschle: Let us pass the bill, and you guys can tack on any amendments you want — from symbolic protests against the upper-income skew to unrelated (but politically fertile) gas-tax reductions. They'll all be voted down, of course, but that's what political cover is all about: Noisy surrender. Could also go through by week's end.

What's a president to do? The Republicans are poised to finally hand Clinton two popular, well-packaged bills it'll be dangerous to veto. They're trying to beat the "do-nothing Congress" rap for their own re-election chances, and if Clinton does veto the bills — he's turned the tables on them before, and might figure he can do it again — they'll throw up their hands and blame a do-nothing administration. Whom the voters blame may come down to Gore and Bush, and that's a fight in which the GOP is liking its chances.