House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt suggested over the weekend that he will push to raise taxes if the Democrats win control of the House next year and the budget deficits return.
Mr. Gephardt’s call for income-tax increases, reported in the Des Moines Register on Sunday, triggered a volley of criticism from Republican Party officials, who warned yesterday that the Democrats were plotting to repeal President Bush’s tax cuts as soon as they returned to power.
“The message is clear: Republicans giveth and Democrats taketh away. Americans are just now receiving their tax-refund checks, and Democrats are already trying to yank it back so they can spend more on wasteful Washington programs,” said Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“The ink isn’t even dry on the tax-rebate checks, yet the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives is already plotting ways to raise taxes,” said House Republican Conference Committee Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma.
Mr. Gephardt’s remarks came just as the first of nearly $40 billion in tax rebates were mailed, and as the economy continued to show weakness amid rising unemployment.
Less than 48 hours after the Register story hit the news wires, Mr. Gephardt’s office issued a statement flatly denying the newspaper report.
Speaking at a Democratic congressional fund-raising event in Des Moines on Saturday, Mr. Gephardt said Democrats “did what was right” when Congress raised income and gas taxes in 1993 under President Clinton, adding “I’ll do it again” if the Democrats win control of the House in next year’s midterm congressional elections.
Mr. Gephardt prefaced his remarks about raising taxes by predicting that the Congressional Budget Office would soon issue a report forecasting that the budget would fall back into a deficit within six months. If that happens, the Bush administration will attempt to dip into funds set aside for Social Security and Medicare, he said.
“Let me tell you something. I’m glad we did what was right in 1993, and I’ll do it again because I believe in being fiscally responsible with the taxpayers’ money,” he said.
The Des Moines newspaper published his remarks in a story under the headline “Tax Increase Possible, Gephardt Says.” But the Democratic leader, who is considering another campaign for president, released a statement yesterday morning saying that story’s “assumption [that House Democrats would raise taxes] could not be further from the truth.”
“I never addressed the future of taxes in my remarks because I don’t believe they need to be raised. I believe that the Bush administration must work to keep this budget in the black despite an overzealous tax cut that threatens our prosperity,” he said.
GOP officials were not buying Mr. Gephardt’s sudden backpedaling. They noted that he was a fierce opponent of Mr. Bush’s 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut package and tried to scale it back considerably.
“It’s clear that Gephardt proposed an idea that will hurt his presidential aspirations and now is backtracking. He’s out holding fund-raisers with Jane Fonda and proposing tax increases, and that’s not good for your image,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“It seems to me that the Des Moines Register probably had it right and they were quoting him accurately,” Mr. Forti said.
House Republican leaders saw Mr. Gephardt’s remarks as a political blunder and pummeled him in a flurry of statements.
“The Democratic leadership in Congress is so out of touch with American taxpayers, they actually are promoting new tax hikes before families can even make it to Wal-Mart to cash their tax rebate checks,” Mr. Watts said.
“The differences between the two political parties couldn’t be more clear: Republican passes the largest tax relief package in 20 years. And Democrats are still talking about their handiwork in 1993 the largest tax increase in American history,” he said.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert also sharply attacked Mr. Gephardt and his party, saying “we need to find ways to get money back to the people, not back to the federal government.”
“As the American people get their first dollars from the tax-relief legislation enacted into law by the Congress and President Bush, they should realize that under a Democrat Congress, such tax relief would be short-lived,” Mr. Hastert said.
“Mr. Gepardt is wrong to want to raise taxes on the American people. The federal government already takes too many dollars from the budget of American families,” he said.
At a forum on tax-cut policy yesterday, House Majority Leader Dick Armey also raised Mr. Gephardt’s weekend remarks and cracked, “I heard that Dick Gephardt has just declared that he wants to retain his current title of minority leader.”
“The suggestion that we raise taxes in tough economic times is ridiculous,” said a spokesman for the Texas Republican.
House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, also a Texas Republican, said that “Dick Gephardt’s campaign commitments to higher taxes is a vivid reminder of the Democrats’ two-step solution to any problem. They expand the government and shrink your wallet.”
Mr. Gephardt’s latest call for higher taxes, just before midterm elections, was similar to remarks he made in June 1999, when he told Democrats in Philadelphia that if they won control of the House in 2000, he would push for higher taxes for education and deeper defense cuts.
“You’ve got to have a combination of taking it out of the defense budget and raising revenue,” Mr. Gephardt was quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying. “I’d be proud to vote for tax increases for schools. You bet I would.”