- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

The House Ways and Means Committee will send a full range of tax-cut bills to the House floor to be voted on when individual income-tax returns come due next month, Chairman Bill Thomas said yesterday.
"We're just going to go ahead with all of them that are already on the record," Mr. Thomas, California Republican, said in a luncheon interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. He said the tax cuts should provide political ammunition to help House Republicans maintain their majority in the chamber after this November's congressional elections.
The list of potential tax cuts, which both President Bush and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, have laid out, includes making last year's tax cut permanent, restructuring the alternative minimum tax and extending a host of other tax breaks that are due to expire soon.
As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Thomas plays a pivotal role in getting legislation on tax cuts, the federal debt, Medicare and Social Security to the floor of the chamber.
He said that if House Republicans do their job properly on taxes, they will be able to frame the issue to benefit their party in House and Senate elections this year especially since 12 Democratic senators broke party ranks to support Mr. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut. Several of those 12 are up for re-election this year in closely contested states.
"I think the Democrats, if they're not careful, will paint themselves into a box about not making last year's tax cuts permanent because they have 12 folks over there [in the Senate], several of them very, very vulnerable, who thought it was OK to take a flier on the temporary tax cuts," Mr. Thomas said.
The challenge for House Republicans, he said, will be to put together a legislative package that can survive the rules of the Senate, which requires 60 votes to bring up contentious legislation. But if they can, he said, "We'll give [Missouri Sen. Jean] Carnahan and several others an opportunity to determine whether they thought enough of those tax cuts to make them permanent. If we can arrange that vote, then it's going to be real interesting."
The budget resolution that Republicans pushed through the House Budget Committee last week and have scheduled for floor debate this week contains $28 billion over five years in new tax cuts. But Mr. Bush has requested almost $700 billion in new tax cuts over the next 10 years, and Democrats have said that just about any tax cut Mr. Thomas and his fellow Republicans request will go beyond the $28 billion and create a bigger deficit.
Still, Mr. Thomas said it doesn't look like the House and Senate will agree to a budget, and so his committee won't be restricted by those guidelines.
"The budget numbers unless they pass we don't have to reconcile with them," he said, adding, "There's a lot you can do with $28 billion."
Mr. Thomas said Republicans have no intention of backing away from Social Security reform this year and that his committee intended to "examine all of the options" being proposed to let workers invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds.
"We're not putting everything off until next year. If we can get it done this year, we'll get it done this year," he said, rejecting advice from some segments of the party that they could not afford in a close election to take up a contentious measure that the Democrats have said will be one of their biggest campaign issues.
A presidential commission appointed by Mr. Bush last year proposed three reform options, all of which would include investing in the stock market.
"We'll examine those options and look at other alternatives" this year, Mr. Thomas said. But he also said working out a politically viable plan is difficult, and that if the committee cannot complete work on all of the options, "We'll bring it up next year" a strategy that the White House prefers.
Democratic leaders have already begun a full-scale political offensive against Republicans on the issue, charging that Mr. Bush and the Republican Party have a "secret plan" to write a Social Security reform bill after the November elections that will cut benefits.
Mr. Thomas admitted that House Republicans have been poorly equipped to deflect attacks on Social Security in the past. "Republicans in Congress play decidedly a second-level game" in the public relations war, he said. But he felt this year things are different, since they have a president, who has control of the bully pulpit and a commitment to the issue, to make the case.
Mr. Thomas said Republicans also have a track record of delivering improvements over the years on politically sensitive programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Mr. Thomas said his committee planned to "move toward an agreement that makes Social Security solvent for the next 75 years. And it won't be by cutting benefits or raising people's taxes."
However, he said any reform must have "guarantees" in the system to ensure that no one would lose their retirement savings in the event of a market collapse, "but there has to be some risk to get a reward."
On raising the debt ceiling, another issue his committee handles, Mr. Thomas said there is no immediate need to do that since the administration has found a way to work around the looming deadline. He said the votes aren't there to pass a stand-alone bill, but one could be included with an upcoming supplemental appropriation measure.
Still, he said he would like to see the entire issue re-examined in the context of redefining what goes into calculating the debt.


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