- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Republican lawmakers are hoping President Bush will use his first prime-time address to a joint session of Congress tonight as a bully pulpit for tax cuts and to break through the distraction of his predecessor's pardons.

"I hope the president will be very bold" about tax cuts, said Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "I hope he'll stay the course in assisting us to protect the Social Security surplus, pay down the debt and pass his tax-relief package."

Lawmakers accustomed to former President Clinton's lengthy speeches will witness a change in style tonight, too.

"This is a mature president," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican. "Unlike Bill Clinton, this is not all about him.

"I want to hear the kind of steely resolve that America is starting to understand is the real George W. Bush," Mr. Ehrlich said.

Although the speech before Congress is a political test of sorts, one House Republican leadership aide said, "Nobody's worried."

"We've all seen George Bush deliver grand-slam speeches," he said.

Mr. Bush has proposed across-the-board cuts in federal income taxes totaling $1.6 trillion over 10 years. But his plan faces a stiff test in the evenly divided Senate, where Republican Sens. James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island oppose it as too large. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia is the only Democrat to support it publicly.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told reporters yesterday that he will encourage Mr. Bush to lobby lawmakers relentlessly on tax cuts.

"The president clearly needs to be very intimately involved," Mr. Lott told reporters, citing similar efforts by Mr. Clinton to sway senators on his agenda. "I'm sure this president will be."

And Mr. Lott said the nationally televised address will be a good opportunity for the new president to claim the political stage alone. In recent weeks, the media have devoted much attention to the roles of money and influence in Mr. Clinton's last-minute pardons, sometimes pushing news about Mr. Bush off the front pages.

"In a way, it's been a distraction," Mr. Lott said. "I'm sure President Bush would like to see the emphasis on his issues."

The Democratic response to Mr. Bush's speech will be delivered by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Both men are fighting the size of Mr. Bush's proposed tax cuts, favoring instead tax relief in the range of $800 billion and more spending on items such as prescription drug benefits.

Some House Democrats will sport buttons tonight in protest of minority education issues. The Republican-controlled House Education and the Workforce Committee recently decided to form a separate subcommittee for historically black colleges, raising objections from some minority lawmakers about a return to "separate but equal" standards of 50 years ago.

Mr. Bush is also likely to talk about his plans to increase federal education spending by 11 percent, tying the increase to accountability and more state testing. The New Democrat coalition in Congress sent a letter to Mr. Bush yesterday, telling him that a "bipartisan agreement is well within our reach" if the administration makes a few fundamental changes to its education-reform package.

Led by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and vice-presidential candidate last year, the coalition asked Mr. Bush to "significantly increase" funding for reform and to target the school districts that are most in need.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of about 60 conservative lawmakers, is looking for Mr. Bush to establish "fiscal discipline," according to Executive Director Neil Bradley.

"Certainly less than the 6 to 8 percent [growth in spending] we've been seeing," Mr. Bradley said.

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