- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

A weakening economy will fuel bipartisan support for George W. Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut plan next year, though it may be divided into smaller bills for easier passage, House Republican officials said yesterday.

Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney has already begun talking to party leaders about what Mr. Bush's legislative priorities would be, and the across-the-board plan to cut income-tax rates will be No. 1, according to key House Republican leadership officials.

Pointing to recent government statistics showing that the economy is slowing much more than analysts expected, Republicans underscored yesterday that the Bush tax-cut package would be at the top of their agenda when the new Congress convenes in January.

"The speaker is a strong proponent of tax relief. It's the centerpiece of our agenda. We are looking forward to a president who signs our tax-cut measures," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

"Frankly, our priorities are the same as President-elect Bush, tax relief, education reform, retirement security and national defense," Mr. Feehery said. "The slowing economy is an excellent argument for tax relief to make sure there is no recession."

At the same time, Rep. Phillip M. Crane, Illinois Republican, the second-ranking member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, signaled yesterday that he was ready to begin work on Mr. Bush's tax-cut proposals if he becomes the panel's next chairman.

"President-elect Bush's tax cuts are in many ways the perfect response to a slowdown or recession," said the conservative lawmaker, who is in a contest for the committee's chairmanship with Rep. Bill Thomas of California, the panel's third-ranking Republican.

"Marginal rate reductions are a proven antidote to a slowdown. I expect to work closely with the president and the House leadership to move on these initiatives very quickly in the Ways and Means Committee," Mr. Crane told The Washington Times.

However, Mr. Thomas whose record generally gets lower marks from tax-cut groups than Mr. Crane seemed unwilling to say yesterday what kind of a tax plan he would be willing to support should he become chairman.

"At this stage, I'm not interested in making comments about a plan until I get a piece of legislation. I don't know what plan [Mr. Bush is] going to send me," said Mr. Thomas.

Asked if Mr. Bush's plan would be a top priority if he became chairman, Mr. Thomas said that "If the president sends me a plan and the House leadership believes it is the appropriate action to take, it certainly will be."

But there was talk yesterday within Republican inner circles that the party may take a page out of the strategy they used this year with President Clinton when dealing with Mr. Bush's plan that contains a number of tax-cut components from marginal in-come tax-rate reduction to doubling the per-child family-tax credit.

"We have already passed some of [Mr. Bush's] tax cuts, including reducing the marriage penalty and the death tax. We may possibly break those out of his plan and pass them separately to get some early bipartisan accomplishments," said Michelle Davis, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.

"When we tried to pass bigger tax-cut bills, it was easier for the Democrats to demagogue them. But when we broke it into pieces, the death tax, ending the marriage penalty, people got the message and we got bipartisan support from the Democrats," said Miss Davis.

This breakout strategy, which helped Republicans keep the public focused on the central purpose of each tax cut, which often gets lost in big omnibus bills, worked well for the Republicans this year.

Mr. Clinton vetoed them, but the bills still drew a substantial number of Democratic votes: 51 supported the Republican marriage-penalty tax cut and 65 supported repeal of the estate tax.

Republican legislative strategists concede that Mr. Bush's across-the-board income-tax-rate cuts will be difficult to pass without Democratic support, especially in the Senate where the party split will be 50-50.

But the political dynamic in the tax-cut debate could dramatically change in their favor if the economy continues to soften next year, Republican officials said.

"Clearly, economic conditions will add momentum to tax relief. Economics 101 teaches us that when the economy starts slowing, one way to sustain growth is to cut taxes," said Trent Duffy, the Ways and Means Committee's chief spokesman.

Mr. Cheney, clearly playing to that concern, said about a week ago that Mr. Bush's tax cuts were needed now more than ever because of the weakening economy, whose annual growth rate has plunged from a 5 percent rate to 2.5 percent in the past year.

"We may well be on the front edge of a recession here," Mr. Cheney said. "I would hope that would change people's calculations with respect to the wisdom of the kind of tax cut that Governor Bush has recommended."

But Bush advisers yesterday, speaking on background, said that new numbers from the Commerce Department and the Federal Reserve Board showing further weaknesses in the economy would spark added support in Congress "to get the economy growing again."

"Certainly, tax-rate cuts would be the ideal stimulus to keep the economy growing," said a spokesman for the governor.

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