Bush appeals to party loyalty in big budget test
WASHINGTON (AP) – Meeting privately with Republican senators, Vice President Dick Cheney appealed for unanimous support for the administration’s budget and reminded lawmakers they owe their chairmanships in a 50-50 Senate to the fact that he and President Bush are in office.
”If we don’t pass this budget, we might as well hand the keys of this place to (Senate Democratic leader) Tom Daschle,” Cheney added, according to GOP sources who attended the recent closed-door session.
The vice president won a standing ovation from the Republican rank-and-file that day – if not the unanimity he sought – with an appeal that underscored the political importance of the budget debate now unfolding on the Senate floor.
It is the first big test of Bush’s ability to advance his economic agenda, including a proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, in the wake of last fall’s improbably close elections and a Senate divided down the middle.
Cheney cast his first tie-breaking vote Tuesday as vice president when Sens. Zell Miller, D-Ga., and Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., bolted their parties on subsidizing seniors’ purchases of prescriptions without trimming Bush’s tax cut.
Passage of the budget won’t guarantee that his tax cut becomes law, since this legislation merely sets the parameters for the tax cuts and the spending bills that will follow. But its defeat would render that goal all but impossible to achieve, given Democratic determination to reduce his proposed tax cut and shift some of the money to domestic programs.
”I do think that we should give the president a chance to get his priorities at least considered,” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. said on Monday as debate began.
In fact, many of those priorities are being rearranged on the Senate floor to preserve the tax cut. Republicans are in the process of adding hundreds of billions of dollars in spending for Medicare prescription drugs, for education, for defense, for veterans and agriculture programs – all in an effort to hold the votes they need to preserve the tax cut.
For his part, Bush told visiting members of the National Restaurant Association recently to lobby their senators to favor the tax cut, adding, ”Until I sign that bill, I’m going to be relentless on the subject.”
Bush has been relentless indeed, traveling to nearly two dozen states since unveiling his proposal in a nationally televised address in February.
He is not the only president who has struggled at the outset of his administration to put an economic program in place. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was in a similar position eight years ago.
Democrats pushed Clinton’s budget through the Senate in late March on a near party line vote, with two members of their rank-and-file opposed, no Republicans in favor.
A few months later came the tax increases that made up the core of the new president’s deficit reduction program. Democrats had a majority in the Senate, but party unity was elusive then, as now. And unlike the current case, in which Miller has already announced his support for the Bush budget, GOP opposition was solid eight years ago.
Vice President Al Gore cast a tie-breaking vote after then-Sen. Bob Kerrey, of Nebraska, a Democrat, gave his support reluctantly. Kerrey cast his vote after a Senate speech that sounded at times like he was addressing the president personally.
”I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down your presidency,” he said at the time, in remarks that bear a strong resemblance to the sentiments being expressed by Republicans eight years later.
Republicans say they are particularly concerned about enlisting the support of two lawmakers, although they express the hope they can yet bring Vermont Sen. James Jeffords – a chairman – into the fold.
That leaves Chafee, a moderate, who told reporters during the day, ”I’m the only one committed against it.”
The vice president met with Chafee on Monday, and, the senator said, made an appeal both on the basis of party unity and that passage of the budget was in the best interests of the country.
But Chafee says the tax cut must be cut to leave room for other priorities. Asked about the appeal to join together to save Bush from defeat, he says, ”I don’t agree with it. The president even if he gets $750 billion or $900 billion (in tax cuts), it’s a win.”
That’s not how Bush has defined success, as Chafee knows. Particularly among the GOP rank-and-file in a Senate where their majority is precarious.
Cheney left the private meeting quickly a week ago after appealing for support for the budget. Chafee was recognized to speak a few moments later and raised questions about the wisdom of the budget, as well as the wisdom of winning on a party-line vote.
Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas provided the response, according to several sources, asking whether Chafee would prefer it if Bush’s plan went down to defeat, 51-49, on a party line vote.
EDITOR’S NOTE – David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.
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