- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

A nation at war needs a "distraction oasis" to satisfy its thirst for normalcy. College basketball is the perfect destination. March Madness officially begins today as the NCAA basketball tournament gets off to a roaring start across the country. My wife, Sue, the most devout University of Arizona Wildcat fan east of the Mississippi, worries I might jinx her alma mater, but pick the Wildcats in your office pool and you won't be sorry. Whoever gets to the Final Four, in the Big Easy of New Orleans exercised smart tactics and capitalized on lucky breaks lessons that work in lawmaking as well as on the hardwood.
Congress began a competition of its own this week, shaping an economic growth plan. This "tax tournament" resembles March Madness. Whoever wins will also do so through adroit tactics, tenacity and fortuitous circumstance.
Tax-cut advocates face formidable foes. Huge spending demands for defense and homeland security mixed with worries about the nettlesome federal budget deficit have conferred underdog status on the tax cut. Some say President Bush's $726 billion economic growth package is losing ground, with precious time ticking off the clock; others say it's dead, victim of a first- round blowout. Yet, a closer examination of the tax cut debate on Capitol Hill suggests a more sanguine outlook.
Once both bodies pass a budget blueprint, either tonight or early Friday, a conference committee will hammer out the differences, yielding a single plan setting overall targets for spending and taxes. Both the House and Senate will likely vote to ratify this compromise document, the budget conference report before April 15th.
When lawmakers agree on an overall tax number, the action shifts to the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees Congress' venerable tax- writing committees. These panels will write the specific new bill, considering issues such as accelerating the 2001 rate cuts and the president's tax-free dividend proposal.
The debate will play out over the next several months with all the drama of a triple overtime thriller. Yet, because of a game plan that's equal parts perspiration and inspiration, a version of the president's economic plan may move from a Cinderella story to contender status.
The Administration exercised far-sighted political tactics over the past six months, significantly shifting the terms of the debate. While details on the total size and scope of the tax package are not final, this week's debate on the budget suggests Congress will pass additional tax relief legislation in the months ahead.
The House will pass a budget calling for a $726 billion economic growth plan while the Senate may adopt a smaller number. A final agreement will end up somewhere between the two, but close to where most pundits predicted the president's proposal would start when looking into their crystal balls last year. Even Senate Budget Committee ranking Democrat Kent Conrad said last week that he could vote for a tax-cut plan in the range of $350 billion.
By proposing a bold number, knowing the Senate might reduce it, the administration may end up with a tax cut of around $400 to $500 billion right about where they wanted it from the start. Charles Gabriel, Washington analyst for Prudential Securities, agrees: "Last December, no one thought the president would put forward a $726 billion bill. They thought it would be around $400 or $500 billion and that looks like what he might get."
The administration and its allies are also changing how they talk taxes, humanizing and popularizing their rhetoric. Previously, many lawmakers relied heavily on "process" language, speaking of tax relief, deficits or the virtues of "dynamic scoring" as if they were ends in themselves. Now, they emphasize the economic benefits to seniors, half of whom receive some type of dividend income. They talk about how the plan adds wealth to the burgeoning investor class through an improved stock market. And how the president's proposal boosts pension plans sagging in value.
Finally, assuming resolution of the war with Iraq, the administration may have a chance to capitalize on some lucky breaks. With the costs of the conflict more in perspective, and war anxiety behind us, the economy should rebound. The stock market rally earlier this week is a leading indicator of better times ahead. With war uncertainty allayed, advocates should find a more hospitable environment to discuss the virtues of tax cuts as a formula to expand economic growth.
So, forget all the talk about first-round knockouts. The administration's economic growth proposal will come out a winner. Altered due to grueling politics and negotiations, and looking different than in the preseason, enough will pass for the president to provide Americans an economic "three-peat" in this tournament of ideas tax relief for the third year in a row.

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