- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Enacting a muscular economic growth package became a lot harder for President Bush this week after a feud erupted between House and Senate Republicans that may kill its chances.

Getting any type of tax-cut package passed has been problematic to begin with because of the narrow division in the Senate and two GOP defectors. But a bad situation worsened when Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, also defected.

Mr. Grassley, a tax-cutting proponent, has promised anti-tax cut Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio that he would also oppose any cuts in committee or in the Senate that exceed $350 billion half of what Mr. Bush wants and what the economy needs to start growing again.

House Republicans had a unique agreement with Senate Republican leaders on how much the budget bill would call for in tax cuts: The House sought at least $550 billion in cuts, and the Senate called for $350 billion. In effect, they agreed to disagree for now, hoping to work out their differences later this spring or summer when the two houses go into a conference to iron out competing tax bills.

But Mrs. Snowe and Mr. Voinovich threatened to kill the budget bill unless Mr. Grassley agreed to stand by the Senate's $350 billion figure. He did, announcing his decision in a startling statement on the Senate floor just before the budget bill was approved.

"This means that, at the end of the day, the tax-cut side of the growth package will not exceed $350 billion," Mr. Grassley told stunned colleagues. "There would be no budget and no growth package without our agreement."

Without Mrs. Snowe and Mr. Voinovich's votes, there would be no budget bill. That means the tax cuts could be filibustered, requiring Republicans to get 60 votes to pass anything, an impossible hurdle to overcome. With a budget bill, a 51-vote majority suffices.

Betrayed and angered House Republican leaders reacted with a rare public display of insults among party leaders.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said Mr. Grassley had a "secret tax plan which in no way reflects the position of the House and is inconsistent with the agreement reached by the House and Senate."

Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois went even further, saying that "the secret agreement that was supposedly reached by Sen. Grassley … violates the spirit of this budget compromise."

"With all due respect to Sen. Grassley, he is ultimately irrelevant because our agreement was made with the Senate leadership, and they have the power to keep it," Hastert said in a statement.

That may be the case, but when the tax bills go into a House-Senate conference, Mr. Grassley will be one of the key conferees. Will he vote for a House-driven compromise to push the tax-cut total above $350 billion? It seems unlikely now. Without his vote, meaningful pro-growth tax cuts may be dead.

The feud grew even messier after Mr. Grassley's so-called secret deal.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in a major test of his new leadership, seemed to have lost control of his conference. Mr. Frist put out a statement apologizing to House Republican leaders, saying he "should have passed on to the House leadership" the information that Mr. Grassley was jumping ship.

Shortly after, he issued a slightly revised statement that dropped a key sentence from the first version that said, "Not doing so created confusion." Clearly, this was not Mr. Frist's finest hour.

With the economy showing continued weaknesses, Mr. Bush needs to have his forces on Capitol Hill fully united in the coming tax-cut battle with the Democrats. But Mr. Frist has lost his grip on his troops, and the strategy to squeeze out a larger tax-cut figure is now in doubt.

But the White House still thinks the tax cuts are salvageable. With the Iraq war practically over, Mr. Bush is mounting a full-court press on the economy and his whittled-down stimulus package. His No. 1 challenge will be building public support for tax cuts and finding the elusive votes he needs to get a bigger tax cut through the Senate.

There are signs of breakthroughs: Arizona Sen. John McCain, a deficit hawk, now says he could vote for tax cuts. And, while Mr. Grassley said he would stick with $350 billion through Senate consideration of the tax bill, this does not mean he will oppose whatever emerges from a conference.

With Vice President Dick Cheney presiding in the Senate to break tie votes, the White House needs only 50 ayes to win. So, with Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia in Mr. Bush's corner, the president needs to find no more than two votes to get a bill to his desk.

The only question now is how close Mr. Bush can get to the $550 billion that the House is now poised to approve, because, as Speaker Hastert says, "$350 billion is clearly not enough of an investment to get the job done."


Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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