- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Members of the House Republican leadership upped the tax-cut ante yesterday, backing a plan worth $500 billion more over 10 years than President Bush's $1.6 trillion proposal.

"The Bush plan is a great beginning, but it's a floor not a ceiling," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said at a press conference.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox of California, and 36 other conservative Republicans are co-sponsors of the legislation written by Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican.

Mr. DeLay attended the news conference but has not signed onto the bill.

"The president has stated his position clearly," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said, adding that $1.6 trillion is the "right size."

Still, Miss Buchan said, "we are encouraged that the debate is not 'if there should be tax cuts,' but 'what should be the size of tax cuts?' "

Mr. Bush yesterday took his tax-cut message to New Jersey, where he openly courted Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a Democrat, with arguments that his state's high cost of living puts average families into the nation's highest tax brackets.

"I have been most pleased with the comments Senator Torricelli has been making," Mr. Bush told a gathering of local business leaders in East Brunswick after taking Mr. Torricelli on his trip aboard Air Force One.

Mr. Toomey said "American taxpayers deserve a bigger, faster, pro-growth tax cut." But he and the dozen or so Republicans who joined him at yesterday's news conference said they would vote for a $1.6 trillion tax-cut plan if that's how the bill ended up.

"I think it's transparent," said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. "They are trying to make $1.6 trillion look like it is in the middle."

But, Mr. Baucus said, "I don't think anyone over here is paying much attention."

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, also said she didn't think the House action would change the debate in the Senate.

Those who want to cut taxes by less than $1.6 trillion have made that decision based upon policy not politics, said Mrs. Snowe, who backs a "trigger" to stop further tax cuts if projected surpluses are not realized.

"The question is 'Will it be $1.6 trillion?' not 'whether it will be more than $1.6 trillion," Mrs. Snowe said.

In addition to the tax cuts proposed by Mr. Bush, Mr. Toomey's plan would include further tax incentives for retirement savings, a repeal of the excise tax on telephones and telecommunications, and an expansion of tax breaks for medical savings accounts.

Other House and Senate Republican leaders said yesterday they remain committed to the budget Mr. Bush has put forward, including his tax-cut plan.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, said he would like to see $2 trillion in tax cuts, but that he and the Republican leadership will remain "focused" on Mr. Bush's tax-cut plan.

Similarly in the House, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, is sticking with the president's plan, his spokesman said.

An aide to one House leader backing the new plan conceded the tax cut likely will end up at $1.6 trillion, but that pushing for deeper cuts would help ensure that will be the case.

An aide to a Republican leader who did not join Mr. Toomey said the effort is not unwelcome, saying it helps to have "upward pressure" on the size of tax cuts to respond to the downward pressure that Democrats are exerting.

Elsewhere, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson took an apparent step away from the Bush administration's stance on Medicare and how to fund a $135 billion prescription drug benefit under the program.

Democrats have said that surpluses generated by a portion of the Medicare program should be used to assure the long-term viability of the program.

Congressional Republicans have agreed in part, but said those surpluses could help fund a new prescription drug benefit.

The Bush administration has gone a step further, including those surpluses, estimated at about $500 billion over the next decade, in a roughly $850 billion "contingency fund."

Mr. Bush has said Medicare money would be reserved for Medicare benefits, but his administration also has argued that there really is no Medicare surplus. Thus, while $153 billion of the contingency fund could pay for a prescription drug benefit, it also could be used to increase spending on defense, bail out farmers, cut taxes further or finance other future needs.

House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, confirmed the congressional position yesterday.

"We're not going to include it in the contingency fund. That's a settled question in the House. We have a lock box. We're going to lock that away as separate," he said.

But in a surprise to many, Mr. Thompson appeared to agree.

"The law says that money that goes into the trust fund is a credit to the trust fund plus interest, and it's going to be used for Medicare," Mr. Thompson replied to Democratic inquiries at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing.

He added that Medicare surpluses should not be diverted even to cover the cost of a new prescription drug benefit should Mr. Bush's $153 billion commitment prove insufficient.

"That's where I'm coming from, but I'm coming as the secretary of health and human services. And I'm telling you my position," Mr. Thompson said.

His comments pleased Democrats.

"No," gasped a surprised Senate Democratic aide when told of Mr. Thompson's remarks. "Thompson has just made our point," another Senate aide said.

Mr. Thompson's testimony may have been "a little off-message," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican. "We are going to have to make sure we are on the same page here."


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