GOP showing confidence Bush budget will pass Senate

Friday, March 30th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans say they are collecting enough votes to push an outline of President Bush's tax and spending plan through the Senate, though the battle continues over undecided lawmakers from both parties.

``We will have the votes,'' Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Thursday. Other GOP leaders agreed, and some Democrats acknowledged privately that a narrow Republican victory was beginning to seem likely when the Senate debates the package next week.

At stake was a near $2 trillion budget for 2002 written by Republicans and reflecting most of Bush's priorities, similar to one the House approved on Wednesday. Among its features are the commencement of a 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut and slower growth in spending for many federal programs.

Vice President Dick Cheney's ability to break tie votes in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 between the two parties, was another factor working in the GOP's favor. And with Republicans unwilling to let Bush suffer a jarring legislative setback less than three months into his presidency, the key question seemed to be what promises _ and changes _ the GOP would have to make to ensure the budget's passage in the Senate.

``It's one we have to win, absolutely,'' said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., the No. 2 Senate Republican leader.

That process was well under way.

Farm-state senators and pro-defense lawmakers were being told that while the budget might not reflect the extra spending they wanted, they would get some later this year in a separate spending bill covering the remaining months of fiscal 2001.

In addition, wavering moderate Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., seemed likely to win extra funds for education for the mentally and physically disabled, a cause he has championed since entering the House in 1975.

``People are being offered big things here,'' said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. ``They're not playing patty-cake.''

As the pressure built, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia became the first Democrat to say he probably would vote for the GOP budget. Miller has been a consistent supporter of Bush's proposed tax cut.

But balancing that, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said he was not supporting the GOP measure, despite a visit with White House chief of staff Andrew Card. Chafee said Bush's tax cut is far too large _ he said he prefers about $450 billion _ and would drain funds needed for debt reduction, deteriorating water systems and other needs.

``The American people are pleading for us to work together on some of our nation's challenges,'' Chafee said in an interview.

Congress' budget, which does not need the president's signature, sets tax and spending goals that are carried out in later bills. And the House, which has already begun churning out tax legislation, advanced two more tax bills on Thursday.

The House voted 282-144 to trim income taxes for most married couples and to gradually double the $500-per-child tax credit. Both are major components of Bush's $1.6 trillion tax-cutting plan.

In addition, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill that would erase the estate tax by 2011 at a cost of almost $193 billion. That bill is expected to reach the House floor next week.

``We certainly can afford tax relief,'' Bush said Thursday, defending his plans before a White House audience of black leaders. ``And that's the debate. Can you afford tax relief, or do you want bigger government?''

Evidencing growing GOP optimism, party leaders rejected a request by Senate Democrats to postpone the budget debate until late April, when Congress returns from a two-week recess. Democrats wanted the delay because they believe the April 9 release of Bush's full budget, including details of spending cuts he will propose, would have given them ammunition to use on the Senate floor.

Republicans were aggressively courting freshman Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who said he received a telephone call Wednesday from Bush.

Nelson said he wants a ``substantial'' tax cut that still leaves enough money for debt reduction, schools, defense, agriculture, and shoring up Social Security and Medicare. Bush's tax cut is too large, but the Democrats' alternative _ about $750 billion _ is too small, Nelson said.

To try nailing down support from several moderates, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., was planning to include nonbinding language in the budget endorsing the idea of letting Congress, in several years, reconsider any tax cuts it enacts this year.


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