- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) — The U.S. Senate Wednesday in a close 56-44 vote approved the president's proposed budget for 2004, but not before slashing his requested tax cut in half.

With the House having approved the full $726 billion tax cut, a conference committee will reconcile it with the $350 billion Senate version.

While not an official passage of a tax cut, the budget resolution established parameters for future legislation that deals with spending. But President George W. Bush's requested $726 billion tax cut over the next year will now have to fit into a $350 billion slot after moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to limit the size of the cuts.

Most Democrats — who pointed to the bulging budget deficit and costs of a war with Iraq — voted against the final version claiming that even the lower cut was unaffordable. But only Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona joined the opposition and several conservative Democrats voted for the measure.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said that the vote merely made an "irresponsible budget less irresponsible," adding that the cut was still too large.

"We still think that's way too much, given the need for sacrifice in this country, given the need to ensure that we have the funds, the resources to provide the many needs that we have in fighting the war in Iraq and our homeland security needs as well," he said.

After a surprise defeat for Republicans on Tuesday, when moderate Republicans and Democrats narrowly won a vote to limit the tax cut, the GOP tried to rally support for restoring the cuts in several unsuccessful attempts throughout the day on Wednesday.

One such effort — sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — would have added $67 billion in cuts by raising the per child deduction from $600 to $1,000. That move was also defeated by a 52-48 vote.

Despite the beating taken by Republicans — who last week also lost a key vote that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration — the leadership encouraged its members to vote for the final version.

"A half a loaf is better than no loaf at all," said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., who chairs the Budget Committee. "I encourage my colleagues to support the measure."

The fiscal 2004 budget allows $400 billion in defense spending and limited non-defense discretionary spending to $385 billion. Last year no agreement was reached on the president's budget proposal, which greatly complicated the appropriations process.

Helping the Democrats' argument was the arrival Monday of Bush's supplemental budget request to fund the war in Iraq with more than $70 billion. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, said that the deficit and war with Iraq makes any tax cut irresponsible.

"Many of us do not think that is affordable or wise, given the fact we're already in record budget deficits," he said. "We now see that with the president's request for additional funding for the war, the budget deficit this year will be over $580 billion … That is twice as much as the previous record budget deficit in the whole history of the United States. That should sober us all."

Now Republicans will have to rely on conference committee negotiations — led by the GOP-controlled House — to restore some of the cuts. One thing assisting this effort will be the Senate rules, which make the final version subject to a final up-or-down vote. Removing the Democrats' ability to filibuster is crucial in the narrowly divided Senate.

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