- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

Republicans learned three strategic lessons from last year's ill-fated $800 billion tax-cut package, which drew only six Democratic votes before Bill Clinton killed it with his veto pen:
(1) Don't give your opponents a fat target to shoot down.
(2) Focus on a few popular, easily understood tax cuts.
(3) Force the Democrats to vote on them separately.
This year, the Republicans are making the anti-tax-cut Democrats and the White House fight them one tax cut at a time. Their divide-and-conquer strategy seems to be working. One or two more of these election-year tax cuts may become law.
The Senate last Friday passed a bill to phase out the estate tax (more aptly named the "death tax"), already passed by the House and now facing a threatened presidential veto.
Polls show that both the estate tax cut and elimination of the so-called marriage penalty are enormously popular with two huge voter constituencies: married couples and small-business owners.
That is why House Democrats deserted their party leadership in droves when these tax cuts came up for a vote earlier this year. To their surprise, GOP leaders won the support of 48 Democrats in the House for marriage-penalty relief. Sixty-five Democrats voted to end the death tax, enough to override President Clinton's veto.
This has been a year of relentless tax-cut votes. House Republicans have been peeling off key parts of the 1999 tax bill and offering them as separate bills. They passed a bill to repeal the 3-percent telephone excise tax over 10 years by a virtually unanimous vote of 420-to-2. The Senate takes it up in September during the elections. "It will be a slam-dunk vote," said a Senate GOP leadership official. Mr. Clinton will sign it.
Earlier this year, Congress approved legislation to end the earnings tax on Social Security retirees who work an enormously popular and long-sought reform that the Clinton administration originally opposed but was forced to accept.
The House and Senate will also soon vote on bipartisan bills to raise from $2,000 to $5,000 a year the annual contribution workers can put into their regular or Roth Individual Retirement Accounts. This bill goes right to the heart of the 100-million member investor class that the GOP believes will make up the foundation of their voter base in November.
Needless to say, Democrats are lining up to vote for it. There may be as many as 100 House Democrats who will desert their party leadership to join the GOP tax-cut crusade for IRA expansion. "We're hearing rumors that the White House is scrambling to prevent another mass defection in favor of IRA tax relief," said a gleeful Trent Duffy, chief spokesman for the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
The GOP's aggressive tax-cut drive has clearly thrown the Democrats on the defensive and forced them to change their tune on many tax issues.
Mr. Clinton weakly offered to cut a deal with the Republicans to accept a scaled-down version of their marriage-penalty tax cuts if they would pass his proposal to add prescription benefits to Medicare. "No deal," Republican leaders told the president.
Al Gore, also reading the handwriting on the wall, recently doubled the size of his tax-cut bill, from $250 billion to $500 billion. He said it was in response to the new budget surpluses, but his advisers realized that the tax-cut contest was heating up and he wasn't in the ballpark.
Even Harlem's Rep. Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee and a staunch tax-cut opponent, tried to cut a deal with Republican leaders on the estate tax to lower it from 55 percent to 40 percent.
Clearly, as both parties gear up for the conventions and the elections to come, the administration and the Democrats appear to be losing the tax-cut fight badly.
A big reason for the GOP's successes thus far is the burgeoning budget surplus, which is tipping the scales at $2 trillion in the general fund alone. The idea that some of this money can be returned to the workers who earned it makes sense to millions of voters.
Another is the GOP's brilliant strategy of using the Democrats' "fairness" argument against them. "We turned the tax fairness issue on its head because all of these items in the tax code are viewed as fundamentally unfair," says Stephen Moore, chief tax analyst at the Cato Institute.
"We're really winning on the idea that these estate and marriage taxes are unjust. We're winning on the moral arguments rather than on the economic-growth argument," Mr. Moore told me.
The Senate was at work at the end of last week on the marriage-penalty tax cut, with as many as eight to 10 Democrats supporting the GOP bill. A vote is expected as early as today. "The tide has really turned on the Democrats," said a Senate GOP leadership official.
Republicans are on a tax-cut roll this summer, and that could pay them big political dividends in November.


Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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