CONGRESS approves Bush budget as moderate Democrats back plan

Thursday, May 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A divided Congress approved a final 2002 budget Thursday as moderate Democrats supplied pivotal support for a measure clearing a path for President Bush's goals of cutting taxes and reining spending.

The Senate gave final congressional approval to the $1.95 trillion fiscal plan by a mostly party line 53-47 vote. In a chamber divided 50-50 between the two parties, the difference was that while two Republicans voted against the GOP-written blueprint, five Democrats supported it.

``Is it a perfect document?'' asked Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, a leader of the Senate's centrist Democrats who voted for the package. ``Of course not. But does it advance the cause of government in a democracy that is almost evenly divided between the two parties? I think the answer is yes, it does.''

Other Democrats joining Breaux in backing the budget were Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Max Cleland and Zell Miller of Georgia. Miller was the only Democrat long certain to support it.

Sens. James Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island were the only Republicans to stray from supporting the package.

On Wednesday, Republicans pushed the measure through the House by 221-207, with only a handful of defections from either party. The budget does not need the president's signature.

In the measure's center ring are plans for an 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut and holding many federal programs to 4 percent growth next year, while proposing increases spending for education, medical research and other initiatives.

Bush had long sought a 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax reduction, but was forced to settle for less because of the Senate's delicate political balance. The moderates became a pivotal block of votes, and it took the White House and GOP leaders more than a month to woo enough of them to push the budget through.

``You didn't get everything you want, Mr. President,'' said the Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., adding, ``You have made us change direction. You have moved us in the direction of giving back taxes to the American people, rather than giving them the last cut of the deck.''

But Democrats, adopting a Mother's Day theme, asserted that the tax cut would be a boon to the rich while sapping money needed for schools, health care and shoring up the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

``Yes, Mother, I voted for the tax cuts,'' said Sen. Robert Byrd, W.Va., envisioning a conversation a lawmaker might have. ``But now on Medicare, no, we're putting that off for another day, Mother. Forget it.''

The budget is a guideline for lawmakers and does not need Bush's signature.

Specific tax and spending decisions will be made in later bills and are likely to exceed the budget's numbers. GOP leaders have vowed to seek deeper tax cuts, and lawmakers are likely to pursue more money for defense, farmers and other programs.

Final budget approval will give Bush a huge edge in shoving his cherished tax reductions through Congress.

Budget passage means Senate Republicans can get by with just 50 Senate votes _ plus a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Dick Cheney if needed _ to pass their big tax bill. Without the budget's protection, Democrats probably could kill the tax measure by filibuster, delays that take 60 votes to halt.

Any tax cuts beyond the $1.35 trillion outlined in the budget would be vulnerable to filibuster.

The budget would hold spending to $661 billion _ the same 4 percent boost Bush sought _ for all programs except automatically paid benefits like Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats said that 4 percent rate of growth would prove inadequate _ in programs Congress grew this year by 8 percent.

Boosts are planned for education, defense, and biomedical research, and $300 billion is set aside for new prescription drug coverage. Other unspecified programs would face smaller increases or cuts.

The measure would also shrink the publicly held national debt by $2.4 trillion, which Republicans say is all that is feasible. Democrats say more could be done but for the GOP's huge tax cut.

The Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he will release a bipartisan tax cut bill Friday if he gets support from at least four of the 10 committee Democrats and most Republicans.

To fit Bush's tax proposals into the smaller $1.35 trillion figure, Grassley could delay the full income tax reductions beyond 2006; reduce the top 39.6 percent rate to more than the 33 percent Bush wants; and seek a smaller reduction in the tax marriage penalty paid by millions of two-income couples.