- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

The House of Representatives today is expected to approve the largest part of President Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, his centerpiece campaign promise, in what the White House calls an "important first step" toward overdue tax relief.

"We're going to win," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republicans. "Don't ask me for a number, but we're going to win."

Mr. Bush told Treasury Department workers yesterday he is confident of victory.

"I feel like I'm going to have a pretty good day in the House of Representatives," the president said.

House Republican leaders expect fewer than 10 Democrats to vote for Mr. Bush's across-the-board cuts in federal income tax rates, a proposal totaling about $950 billion.

But they also anticipate losing perhaps only one Republican vote Rep. Constance A. Morella of Maryland is undecided in the chamber where they hold a nine-seat advantage.

"I wish we would wait on it," Mrs. Morella said yesterday. "It's coming up awfully fast. Do we have enough money for everything else? I'm still contemplating."

Republican leaders agreed last night to risk allowing a vote on a smaller, alternative Democratic tax cut when the issue comes to the floor today.

The Democrats' plan, totaling $585 billion, would reduce the lowest bracket tax rate from 15 percent to 12 percent on the first $20,000 of taxable income. It would also increase the value of the earned income tax credit and increase the standard deduction of married couples to double that of a single taxpayer.

The decision by the House Rules Committee came amid fears that the Democratic plan might lure centrist Republicans who want to devote more of the projected federal budget surplus to paying off debt instead of tax relief.

But one such centrist Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, said the Bush tax cut is the best way to limit federal government spending.

"We've worked hard to get our financial house in order," Mr. Shays said in an interview. "Congress is just going wild with more spending. Let's take that money off the table."

Today's vote comes only eight days after Mr. Bush delivered his budget outline to Congress, urging swift action on tax cuts to reverse a weakening economy. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the rate cuts last week on a party-line vote, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill visited House Republicans yesterday to applaud them for their quick action.

"As we look at the economic statistics, we feel it is important to get money flowing back to the American people as fast as we can," Mr. O'Neill told reporters following the closed-door meeting.

Rep. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and a key Bush ally in the House, said Republican centrists and liberals seem united behind the president's plan because the economy appears to be slowing at the same time there is a surplus making a tax cut feasible.

"We are hearing back [from constituents] that there is real anxiety and concern, and there are real layoffs the economy is in trouble," Mr. Portman said.

Floor debate is expected to follow the partisan tone set in yesterday's House Rules Committee hearing.

"There have been no discussions with Democrats," said Rep. Charles E. Rangle, New York Democrat and ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee. "There have been no hearings [on the tax-cut proposal]. There have been no economists" to testify about the benefits.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, said that "all economic indicators are downward," and that an immediate tax cut is necessary to pull the country out of a "tailspin."

Meanwhile, Democratic senators from North and South Dakota, whose states Mr. Bush will visit tomorrow to promote his tax cuts, criticized the president's proposal yesterday as too large.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said the president's plan "would fundamentally threaten the economic security of the country" by giving back too much of the surplus to taxpayers.

But Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat who is up for reelection next year, said only that he wants a "balanced" approach.

"I think South Dakotans want a significant tax cut and we're going to deliver on that," Mr. Johnson said.

A bipartisan group led by Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine also failed to persuade House Republican leaders to allow a nonbinding amendment encouraging Congress to add a "trigger" to any tax-cut legislation that is sent to the president. Such a mechanism would prevent tax cuts from taking effect in any year in which projected surpluses do not materialize.

Republican leaders say the trigger mechanism would create a bias toward spending.

• Sean Scully contributed to this report.

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