WASHINGTON — President Bush can’t rely solely on Republican votes for his budget’s centerpiece across-the-board tax cut, and his debut prime-time speech Tuesday night put his persuasive and political powers to a crucial test in courting Democratic and moderate support.
While Democratic leaders rushed to try to put their own stamp on the tax issue, there was little doubt the president with his tightly controlled agenda had already begun to nudge the closely divided Congress his direction on his $1.6 trillion tax cut.
On the 39th day of his presidency, Bush vowed to set the nation on “a different path” by slashing federal debt while increasing spending for popular programs.
“The people of America have been overcharged and on their behalf, I am here to ask for a refund,” Bush said. “Some say my tax plan is too big, some say it is too small. I respectfully disagree. This tax relief is just right.”
“Government should be active but limited, engaged but not overbearing,” he said.
Republicans cheered with enthusiasm, Democrats without it, as Bush made his way down the center aisle of the House chamber to begin his speech.
Not even the pageantry of the moment – both houses of Congress, diplomats and Cabinet officials assembled – could extinguish all echoes of last fall’s recount.
There were audible boos on the Democratic side of the aisle as justices of the Supreme Court were announced. Justice Stephen Breyer was the only one of nine in attendance – and he was one of four who dissented from the historic high court ruling that sealed Bush’s victory 10 weeks ago. What size tax cut will be “just right” is now the prime battleground between the new president and Congress.
In spite of a questionable mandate, Democratic criticism and low expectations, Bush already has managed to steer the national debate to the topics he spotlighted in his presidential campaign.
Democrats balk at the size of his tax cut, but their leaders are now talking about across-the-board cuts just as Bush is – not the narrowly focused tax breaks that former Vice President Al Gore advocated in his presidentail campaign.
“I think that rate reductions are clearly appropriate. But the devil is in the details,” said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “The goal here is to put together and pass a budget that meets the nation’s needs. I’m less concerned about who wins and who doesn’t win.”
Democrats have already suggested their own $750 billion version, with hints that they might go even further.
Beyond taxes, Democrats are also generally on the same page as the president – even if they are slaming individual parts. Democrats don’t like Bush’s school voucher plan – but they generally support other parts of his plan for an increase in federal education spending.
They’re skeptical about his modest proposal to give only poor seniors prescription drug coverage, at least at first, but support pumping more federal money into the financially troubled Medicare system and setting up a prescription-drug program.
Bush’s proposal for a military pay increase, with down-the-road boosts in defense spending and a commitment to newer-age weaponry, is winning support from military-minded lawmakers of
And his proposal to pay down the national debt has wide appeal, although many Democrats would like to go further than Bush’s plan to pay off $2 trillion of the $3.2 trillion in publicly held debt. Bush also proposed a $1 trillion “contingency fund” for unexpected budgetary needs.
On the national debt issue, it was Bush who was coming closer to the Democrats.
Bush also saluted several prominent Democrats in and quoted President John F. Kennedy’s advocacy for tax cuts “to get this country moving again.”
Bush summed up his budget as also advocating “excellent schools, quality health care, a secure retirement, a cleaner environment and a stronger defense.” All hard goals for members of either party to oppose.
But few dispute that there will be bruising battles over the specifics, particularly of the tax cut proposal.
“In the end, I’m very comfortable we’re going to see a different tax package on the president’s desk,” said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Democrats continue to complain that the Bush plan is too biased in favor of the wealthy. At the same time, they’ve vastly expanded their own proposal for tax relief.
“The facts have changed. The surplus is bigger. We are in some kind of an economic slowdown. I think everybody agrees we can do a generous tax cut that affects everyone, especially people at the bottom and in the middle,” House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., told NBC.
Gephardt later made it clear there are limits to how close to Bush Democrats would inch. “President Bush’s budget numbers simply don’t add up. Ours do. His plan leaves no money for anything except tax cuts. Ours does,” he said in the prepared Democratic response to Bush’s speech.
Bush kept his budget priority list short, focusing mostly on issues he had championed during his campaign. He borrowed a page from former President Reagan, whose first budget also included a big tax cut.
On a personal level, Democrats have given Bush some slack, reacting positively to his sunny disposition and personal charm.
“There’s been sort of a feeling that there’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s doing a great job reaching out to everybody and trying to get his message across,” said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Bush has long made his tax cut a point of personal pride, pushing it in spite of polls suggesting questionable public support for so large a cut.
“I believe the president has started his term very well by focusing on things on which he did campaign,” said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., an expert on budget and tax policy and a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
“Democrats can’t be expected to be for everything the president is for,” Frenzel added. “No president ever gotten every word and line he sent up to the Congress. I don’t expect this one will either.”