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House approves tax cut

Bill Adair (St. Petersburg Times)/WASHINGTON -- The House plowed ahead with a tax cut Thursday despite complaints the plan would shortchange future efforts to boost education and reform Social Security and Medicare.

Voting 230-198 along party lines, Republicans overpowered Democrats to approve the centerpiece of President Bush's tax plan, a $958-billion plan that would deliver a modest tax cut this year and bigger cuts by 2006. Republican leaders ignored the usual practice of adopting a budget before a tax bill because they said the cut was needed quickly to boost the ailing economy.

"Mr. and Mrs. America, help is on the way," declared Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, pointed to a Newsweek magazine with "LAID OFF" on the cover and said, "If we don't pass the tax cut, you can look forward to more headlines like this."

The bill would give most taxpayers a $180 cut this year ($360 for married couples) and provide larger cuts over the next five years. The bill would collapse the five tax brackets into four and reduce rates for all taxpayers. The greatest benefits would go to the wealthiest Americans.

Democrats raised a fuss Thursday, using procedural tricks to delay the vote for several hours. They warned that the tax cut was so big it would not leave money for other priorities.

"We are not saving for the retirement needs of baby boomers," said Rep. Richard Gephardt, the House Democratic leader.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., called the tax cut a gamble. "There is no budget and there's no clear indication what (the tax cut) will mean for education or prescription drugs," he said.

Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, warned that the surplus projections could be wrong. She likened the federal budget to a family's finances and said, "If a family's projections are wrong, they must dig into savings or take out loans. If our projections are wrong, then Congress will have to take out loans or use our savings -- Social Security or Medicare."

Budget estimates say the surplus should total $5.6-trillion over 10 years, but both parties do not plan to spend the surpluses from Social Security and Medicare. That would leave $2.7-trillion for tax cuts and new spending.

Bush has said his tax plan would cost only $1.6-trillion, but many economists say the actual cost is over $2-trillion because of additional tax fixes and interest adjustments that must be made.

Democrats say that won't leave enough for education, a Medicare prescription drug plan and other initiatives. They also said the Republican plan would do little to stimulate the economy this year.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, held up a can of baked beans -- Bush's brand, by no coincidence -- to point outEthat the only thing taxpayers could afford from the tax cut was a can of beans. "In fact -- they've got coupons in the newspapers so you can probably get a couple of cans," said Doggett.

Ten Democrats joined 219 Republicans and one independent in passing the bill Thursday evening.

Earlier in the day, the Democrats offered an alternative $586-billion plan that would reduce the bottom tax bracket but leave the upper brackets unchanged. It failed 155-273, with 53 Democrats voting against their party's plan.

The GOP tax bill now goes to the Senate where it faces an uncertain future. At least two Republicans are opposed to the bill and several others would like a "trigger" that would suspend the tax cuts if the surplus does not materialize.

House Democrats complained Thursday that they were not allowed any input into the bill. Gephardt offered a bleak assessment of party relations, saying that Republicans have not lived up to Bush's campaign promise to work with their Democratic colleagues.

"My assessment after a few weeks is that bipartisanship is over -- not that it ever began," said Gephardt.

He complained that the Republicans made no effort to work out a deal with Democrats. "Everybody's for tax cuts," Gephardt said. "It shouldn't have been too difficult to get a compromise."

But Republicans leaders said Thursday that they allowed Democrats to bring up their own bill. "We've reached out, we've used the rules of the House to try to get them to participate," said Majority Leader Dick Armey. "The Democrats decided they don't want to work with us on this."

The timing of Gephardt's harsh comments was a bit awkward. House leaders depart today for a bipartisan retreat in West Virginia. Gephardt said it would be his last. "I don't want to go to West Virginia to be bipartisan," he said during a meeting with reporters in his Capitol office. "I want to be bipartisan in this building."

(c) St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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