WASHINGTON — President Bush, saying that the country's economy is "in some tough times right now," tried Thursday to revive his "no new taxes" campaign pledge.
The message of Tuesday's election, Bush said in a White House press conference, is that "people feel they're taxed too much."
"I'm going to hold the line on taxes," the President said. "Can I make the promise I won't support them? Absolutely." If Congress tries to raise taxes, Bush said, "they're going to do it over my dead veto--or live veto, or something like that."
But the President rapidly carved himself some wiggle room, noting that "sometimes you run into some realities."
Democratic leaders have said that, when Congress reconvenes in January, they may revive efforts to impose a surtax on millionaires and raise other taxes paid by wealthy Americans, particularly if Bush revives his efforts to win a cut in capital gains taxes.
Bush indicated that he will do just that, saying: "When the economy is slow, you want growth incentives." Aides have said a capital gains tax cut will be among the first items of legislation Bush will propose for the new year.
A confrontation over capital gains and taxes for the wealthy would replay issues that led to a dramatic drop in Bush's popularity--and GOP election hopes--in the weeks leading up to the election. In his first comments on Tuesday's results, Bush said he was disappointed but noted that GOP losses were less than in many other midterm elections.
Republicans lost one seat in the Senate and nine in the House--fewer than the party controlling the White House has lost on average in midterm elections over the last several decades. On the other hand, Bush took office with fewer Republicans in Congress than any GOP President has faced in his first term, so the party had few seats to lose. As recently as this summer, Republican strategists had hoped to make major gains in the election.
Many GOP operatives have blamed Bush, at least in part, for the party's relatively poor showing. But Bush fended off suggestions that his slumping popularity was to blame.
"If we had taken a bath," Bush said, "maybe I would have had to accept a little more responsibility and blame."
He said the budget package he and congressional leaders agreed on, which raised taxes and cut federal spending, "is going to prove in the best interests of this country," even though "I'm not suggesting that that was popular or made me popular with everybody."
Bush also brushed aside criticism from conservative activists, who have been particularly harsh in their condemnation of the compromises Bush has struck with Democrats on issues such as taxes.
"There's nothing I can do to placate" some activists who were dissatisfied even with former President Ronald Reagan, Bush said. "I'm not going to even worry about that."
White House aides have insisted that such criticism comes only from professional conservative politicians inside Washington and does not reflect any real disenchantment among voters.
"There's not any big discontent among conservatives outside the Beltway," Republican National Committee spokesman Charles Black said.
But Black also suggested that Bush might take a more combative stance toward the Democrats in the year to come. During the past two years, Congress has passed the few pieces of domestic legislation that Bush pledged to propose during his campaign, Black noted. He cited the Clean Air Act, the budget agreement and child care measures.
"If he chooses to, he can be more confrontational and does not have to depend on bipartisan agreement" next year, Black said.
For his part, Bush alluded to only two pieces of legislation that he plans to submit to Congress next year--the capital gains tax cut and a revived version of the civil rights bill that the Administration pushed as an alternative to a bill passed by Congress and vetoed by Bush in October.
Bush remained defensive over criticism of that veto, repeating: "I've got a good record" on civil rights. "I've not changed in that regard."
The bill he vetoed, Bush said, would "inevitably result in quotas" if it became law. "But now we're out of the political give and take on that, and I think maybe we can get something positive done."
Bush also repeated his opposition to "English only" propositions in some states. "I think it could result in certain discrimination," Bush said. He said he supports bilingual education so long as "the goal of it should be that every kid in this country speak English."
Staff writer Sue Ellen Christian contributed to this story.