- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

BILLINGS, Mont. President Bush yesterday said "the debate is no longer about whether we're going to have tax relief" but how large and how soon in an economy his chief spokesman described as in the middle of an economic downturn.
The president, however, was more cautious with his words.
"We'll let the numbers speak for themselves," Mr. Bush said on his first stop of the day in Kansas City, Mo., where he addressed a group of workers at a small greeting-card business.
"I'm concerned about our economy… . The last quarter of last year was a very slow-growth quarter, and we'll see how it is in the first quarter of this year. I think a lot of experts believe that it's going to be slow."
Asked a second time if he agreed with spokesman Ari Fleischer's statements that the country was in an "economic downturn," Mr. Bush deferred.
"It has slowed down, and we better do something about it," he said.
At the Kansas City event, the president reiterated themes he has stressed since he took office: the need to reduce the tax burden for all Americans and that leaving the projected budget surpluses in Washington where it will quickly be spent is not an option.
"The debate no longer is whether we're going to have tax relief. It is how much money we're going to pass back to the people and how quickly," Mr. Bush said to cheers from workers and invited guests. The president's address opened a two-day, three-state trip designed to court wavering Democrats to support his agenda of tax cuts and budget restraints.
Mr. Bush and his top staff were preparing yesterday for what they called a major speech today in Michigan, where the president plans to describe the country's economic situation and lay out his plan to reverse the declining economy.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, last week blamed Mr. Bush for "talking down the economy."
Earlier yesterday, however, Mr. Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One that the economy's status is clear.
"The president knows we're in the middle of an economic downturn but he has faith that the long-term strength of the economy is solid. There is no dispute that we are in an economic downturn now," he said.
Pointing out that the economy began to sour during the previous Clinton administration, Mr. Fleischer told reporters that the stock market started declining in the spring of 2000 and the gross domestic product began dropping in the summer or fall. He said the economy grew by less than 2 percent in the last quarter of 2000.
"That's a downturn, baby," Mr. Fleischer said.
Growth in the gross domestic product fell from a 5.6 percent annual rate in the second quarter of last year to a rate of 2.2 percent in the third quarter and 1.1 percent in the fourth.
Mr. Bush hopes to reignite the economy by returning $1.6 trillion to taxpayers over the next 10 years. The centerpiece of his proposal is an across-the-board income-tax cut. The president's budget blueprint would limit the growth in government spending to 4 percent, keeping pace with inflation but considerably smaller than growth under the Clinton administration
With a plummeting stock market and a sluggish economy, the Bush administration has signaled that it is receptive to a proposal by Senate Republican and Democratic leaders for an immediate $60 billion tax cut to take effect as early as August.
Under the president's current plan, only $5.6 billion would be returned to taxpayers this year, which critics have said is insignificant in a $10 trillion economy.
Democrats have argued that Mr. Bush's sweeping tax-cut plan is fiscally irresponsible and will gobble up the government surplus. They also complain that most of the tax relief will benefit primarily the wealthy. However, Mr. Bush says the tax cuts are needed as an economic stimulus and will help small businesses like Bajan Industries, which makes greeting cards in Kansas City.
"A major benefit of dropping the top rate … [is] small business owners, thousands of small businesses, pay taxes at the top personal rate," he said.
The Bush administration yesterday hoped to pressure Democrats pivotal to the passage of the president's tax-cut package, targeting Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Reps. Karen McCarthy of Missouri and Dennis Moore of Kansas.
In his visit to Montana later in the day, Mr. Bush hopes that by promoting his economic message he can put pressure on the state's senior senator, Max Baucus, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate tax-writing committee. Mr. Bush decisively won the state in the 2000 election campaign.
"You're only an e-mail away from influencing public policy," the president told about 2000 cheering supporters in a Billings arena.

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