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THE PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

Democrats Look for the Details in Speech, Take Aim

Politics: They say Bush tax cuts will leave no money for anything else. 'The hard part is yet to come,' senator says.

February 28, 2001|JANET HOOK and NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In the first five weeks of George W. Bush's presidency, Democrats have felt like they were shadowboxing with the new president's agenda; now they are ready for a flesh-and-blood target.

The Democrats have been longing for the gory details about which programs would be squeezed to make room for Bush's big tax cut and other campaign promises. Bush, with a speech to Congress on Tuesday night that was long on generalities and short on particulars, didn't provide them with much of a bull's eye yet.

"He gave a fine speech, but the hard part is yet to come," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). "He dwelt mostly on generalities, but the specifics will be the real test."

Indeed, the Democrats hope that his remarks, combined with the budget he sends to Congress today, will help shift attention from what Bush wants to do--cut taxes, increase education and defense spending, reform Social Security--to the trade-offs necessary to enact his program.

"His plan leaves no money for anything except tax cuts," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) in the Democrats' televised response to Bush's speech. "Ours does. Our plan is better. It invests in the greatest needs and highest priorities of our country."

Listening to Bush, Democrats were grim-faced through most of the speech, although they were loath to seem entirely negative in greeting the new president.

"It was a mixed mood," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "We're deeply concerned that the tax cut is going to crowd out other things that are necessary."

Some Democrats were frustrated that Bush seemed to embrace rhetorically many of their party's goals--such as improving the nation's schools and health system--while obscuring the many differences that are likely to emerge over the details of his budget.

"In many respects, if we'd gotten the transcript of this speech six months ago, it would be difficult to tell who won the election," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said.

But as they look to the immediate future, many Democrats believe they see the beginning of the end of Bush's honeymoon period in office, which has been propelled by his vaunted "charm offensive."

'The Charm Stops Here,' Lieberman Says

"Harry Truman used to say, 'The buck stops here,' " said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). "I think tonight the charm stops here, and we've got to begin to look at the guts, the truth of the Bush proposals."

Even before Tuesday's speech, Democrats in Congress--especially those in the Senate, where the parties are split 50-50--have signaled that little will come easily to this president, despite the smooth sailing of his first weeks in office.

After much talk of bipartisanship, only one Democrat has publicly endorsed his tax cut. The GOP chairman of the Senate Budget Committee has already conceded that his panel will deadlock over the budget, forcing him to bring Bush's fiscal plan to the floor without a committee endorsement.

What's more, Democrats are encouraged by signs of incipient GOP opposition to key elements of the Bush agenda, including some moderate Republicans' opposition to cutting taxes as much as Bush wants. And they welcomed polling that indicates voters do not consider cutting taxes their top priority and that many prefer smaller, more targeted tax reductions.

Still, Democratic leaders remain edgy about Bush's efforts to woo possible Democratic supporters. Bush invited Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to accompany him on Air Force One on his flight today to Nebraska, where the president begins a two-day trip to sell his budget on the road. Nelson, whose home state voted overwhelmingly for Bush, has indicated support for cutting taxes but is so far noncommittal on Bush's proposed $1.6-trillion cut over 10 years.

Democrats' Tax Cut Plan Hits Bumps

Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said the Democrats would offer an alternative that would provide $750 billion in tax cuts over 10 years. But the two congressional leaders have yet to produce a detailed alternative--in part because their party is divided over the issue.

"There is going to be some trouble with the details," said Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). "There are some of us who are for a big tax cut. There are some who are for none."

But on Bush's proposal, most of the party is on the same page. They argue that his tax cut threatens to thrust the budget back into deficit. They invoke the memory of President Reagan's 1981 tax cut, which many Democrats blamed for more than a decade of deficit spending that followed.

"It is time that we learned from our past mistakes," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Much of the Democratic argument against Bush's plan is familiar party orthodoxy: that the Republicans would give a big tax cut that disproportionately benefits the wealthy. They also warn that Bush's fiscal plan is in danger of "raiding" the Social Security trust fund and would shortchange education and other domestic priorities.

Other arguments seek to recast the Democratic Party, long considered a bastion of tax-and-spend liberals, as the party of fiscal responsibility: They brag that they want to pay off the $3-trillion national debt more quickly than Bush.

But party leaders must bridge divisions within their ranks as they craft a response to Bush.

Among conservative Democrats, some are wary of being too confrontational with a new president who won a majority in many of their states. But the party's left wing is still seething over the presidential election--and such issues as Bush's intention to rely on Census Bureau numbers that minority groups believe will put them at a disadvantage.

Indeed, to protest Bush's census policy, members of the Hispanic Caucus and other Democrats left five seats empty on the House floor during the president's speech--to symbolize the 3 million people they claim would be left out if Republicans thwart efforts to use statistically adjusted census numbers.

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