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Bush's Budget Faces Stiff Senate Test

Spending: GOP leaders scramble to protect the president's tax cut and other priorities, despite the doubts of moderates. Cheney sticks around to break a tie.


WASHINGTON — President Bush's command of the federal government's fiscal policy confronted its toughest test yet Monday, as the Senate opened debate on a budget resolution that embodies his vision of a $1.6-trillion tax cut and a squeeze on spending growth.

The Senate's 50-50 party split has sent GOP leaders scrambling to save Bush's tax cut plan from an onslaught of Democratic delaying tactics--and, even more perilously, corrosive doubts among moderate Republicans about the wisdom of reducing government revenue so much.

The GOP leaders voiced confidence that they will pass Bush's budget outline with few major changes by the end of the week. But such passage seems likely by no more than a hair's breadth; hopes for a more commanding majority have dwindled as prospective converts have rebuffed administration overtures in recent days.

Senate Democrats admit they are waging an uphill battle in their assault on Bush's budget plan. "The odds are against us, but it's still a possibility," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Still, the outcome is enough in doubt that GOP leaders have asked Vice President Dick Cheney to be on hand all week to be ready to exercise his constitutional power to cast tiebreaking votes in the Senate. He spent part of his time Monday in the Capitol, strategizing with top Republicans.

In the end, aides in both parties say the most likely tally on the final vote will be 51-50, with Cheney breaking the tie and only one member of each party crossing party lines.

"It's right on the knife's edge," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

At issue is a budget resolution that sets the broad tax and spending targets for the federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Detailed spending and tax policy decisions will be made in subsequent bills approved later this year.

The measure brought to the floor Monday by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), like the one approved by the House last week on an almost straight party-line vote, lays the groundwork for implementing Bush's priorities. It makes room for a tax cut of up to $1.6 trillion over 10 years, plus a $60-billion tax cut in 2001 to stimulate the economy. It also allows spending to grow an average of 4% a year, which would slow the rate of growth in recent years; for the current fiscal year, Congress and then-President Clinton agreed to an 8% increase.

Democrats protested that the Senate was debating the measure without having received the president's detailed spending recommendations, due to be released next Monday. They accused Republicans of trying to ram Bush's big tax cut through before it is clear which programs will have to be curtailed to make room for it.

But the budget resolution's outcome will be determined not by committed partisans in either party but by a handful of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.

So far, the only Democrat to announce he would vote for the Bush budget is Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who co-sponsored the president's tax cut. Whatever amendments and maneuvers come up during the budget debate, Miller said, "My vote on each will always be with this goal in mind: to get to the final passage of the Bush tax cut as quickly as possible."

Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), who has indicated he could support a tax cut as big as $1.6 trillion, nonetheless told GOP leaders Monday that he was inclined to vote against the budget resolution.

Another potential Democratic defector, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is eager to cut taxes more than his party's Senate leadership and has been wooed by the Bush administration. But Nelson is irritated that Republican leaders are pushing the budget outline to a vote before Bush submits its details.

"He's not pleased we're not going to see the president's budget until after we vote on the budget resolution," said David DiMartino, Nelson's spokesman. "He's conveyed that to the White House."

Republican leaders are pushing hard to keep GOP senators behind the budget, arguing that they owe it to their new president. "I think it's important all Republicans give the president a chance," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

GOP leaders are hoping Republican moderates will be persuaded to stick with the party by assurances that the budget authorizes a tax cut of up to $1.6 trillion--signaling that it could be less. The House version, in contrast, calls for a tax cut of at least $1.6 trillion.

But intense efforts to win over Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) have so far been for naught. Despite long arm-twisting sessions with GOP leaders and administration officials, Chafee continues to insist that he will vote against the budget resolution if it cuts taxes as deeply as Bush wants. But he may be the only Republican to do so.

As he headed into one more lobbying session Monday afternoon with Cheney, Chafee joked, "Let's see if I come out intact."

Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) also has said he views the $1.6-trillion tax cut as excessive and remains undecided about the resolution. But he is expected to be brought into the GOP fold with promises that the final budget will include more spending for educating the handicapped.

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