Tax-Cut Season Opens in Congress: A Q&A

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Q: So where are we right now?

A: Very much in the beginning stages — votes haven't been counted, and the back-room dealings haven't begun. At this point, the Republicans are looking at what procedures they can use to get Bush's plan passed. And the Democrats are trying to figure out what they're going to offer up as an alternative.

Q: Does that mean the Democrats don't plan to negotiate, that they're taking a win-or-lose hard line?

A: Too early to tell. They're looking at something in the $750 billion to $900 billion range, and a lot more weighted to lower-income families. So the first debate is going to be over size and affordability.

Q: And what strategies are the Republicans looking at?

A: Well, Rep. Bill Thomas, the Republican Ways and Means Committee chairman who'll get the first pass at the plan, wants to pass the marginal-rate reductions first, and then look at the other pieces, like the estate tax reduction, which is the most controversial right now, and the marriage penalty and per-child components, which have wider support.

Q: How does Bush feel about that? He's said he'd let Congress pass this any way they could.

A: He'd much prefer the plan went through all at once.

Q: In the end, whatever happens, the Republicans have the votes, don't they?

A: Technically, they have the numbers. They're figuring that if the Republicans hold together they can pick up some votes among southern and conservative Democrats like Georgia senator Zell Miller, who's in favor of the plan as is.

But lately, especially in the Senate, some moderate Republicans are starting to peek their heads up from the parapet and talk about adding a "trigger" — essentially, that's the idea that if the surpluses don't materialize, the tax cut would be phased down for that year to avoid a budget deficit.

Q: Sounds like a reasonable idea. Greenspan talked about that in his Senate testimony....

A: In theory, it is. But the way Bush and Trent Lott see it, it's really a spending trigger — just a built-in excuse for more government spending down the road, until there's no tax cut at all. Conservative Republicans are pretty adamant about this money, that once it's taken off the table for tax cuts, it stays off the table.

Q: Any other trouble brewing for the Republicans?

A: The business community, who are licking their lips at the sight of all this momentum for tax cuts, want to add $800 billion to $1 trillion onto it, in the form of business tax breaks. And they feel that if Bush is trying to stimulate the economy, businesses need tax breaks too. Bush is resisting, Lott is resisting, but these are the Republicans' best friends — and they've never been resisted before.

Q: So this $1.6 trillion number could still get bigger as well as smaller.

A: Anything's possible at this point.