The Republican retreat

Posted: Jun 12, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, a cautious liberal Democrat from a state trending Republican, was the clearest winner in the post-mortem of the year's great tax battle. She won cash payments for low income people under the guise of tax legislation, while the Republican administration and majorities were in headlong retreat.

GOP leaders in the House at least retreated while kicking, muttering and trying to sweeten the bitter potion by adding a true tax cut for middle-income workers who actually pay taxes. Nonetheless, they are following the Senate in retreat. Unable to withstand Democratic accusations that the tax bill left out "poor kids," Republican leaders succumbed to demands for a "tax cut" on people who pay no income taxes.

While Republicans shrug off their departure from principle as inconsequential, it is no isolated event. Passing the big tax cut was an exception on domestic legislation. With President Bush's acquiescence, GOP bugles on Capitol Hill sound retreat on the growth of government, spending and prescription drugs while Democratic senators filibuster conservative judges at will.

Now, Republicans are extracting Democrats from their vulnerable political cul de sac, from which they attack tax reductions on grounds they would swell the budget deficit. Democrats did not even discover the Republican weakness by themselves. They found it by reading what was written by reporter David Firestone in The New York Times of Sunday, June 1, about lowest income Americans who do not benefit from the tax bill already signed into law.

Democrats then took up the cry that, in the dead of night, heartless Republicans ripped from the tax bill relief for the nation's poorest children to the unneeded advantage of their richest constituents. Seeking to restore the stricken provision, warriors of the left tied up the House last week with procedural obstructions. "It would be unconscionable for the House to continue to do business as usual," shouted Rep. George Miller of California, "when the voices and needs of millions of hard-working American families have been closed out of the people's house."

In fact, this aid for "poor kids" was never in the president's proposal, the Senate and House committee bills or even in Democratic alternatives. The low-income benefit was added to entice support for the bill by Blanche Lincoln, who like most surviving Southern Democrats in Congress talk conservative at home and vote liberal in Washington (as much as 95 percent liberal one year, as measured by the Americans for Democratic Action). However, when Lincoln voted no on the tax bill, it was no problem to remove her sweetener -- until Firestone's news story.

Sound arguments for standing firm were made by House Republican leaders. To give income tax cuts to people who don't pay income tax and child tax credits to people who don't have children amounts to welfare. Rep. Rob Portman, chairman of the GOP leadership and a leader on tax legislation, believes the Internal Revenue Service is singularly ill equipped for dispensing cash subsidies and that this results in scandals in the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Nevertheless, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley quickly surrendered to the Democratic firestorm by passing Lincoln's proposal in a new bill. Only Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles and his colleague from Oklahoma, Sen. James Inhofe, voted no (former Majority Leader Trent Lott clutched his throat, as if to gag, in voting aye). The word in the GOP cloakroom was that Blanche's re-election next year was guaranteed.

When asked what the House should do with this bill, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer was succinct: "Pass it!" Similarly, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was urged by Republian members to capitulate and stop the Democratic barrage.

Characteristically, the House leadership tried to improve Lincoln's handiwork, by giving the child tax credit to people who actually pay taxes. The present $100,000 income eligibility limit means a metropolitan area policeman and his nurse wife now do not receive the full credit. "It (the Senate bill) is bad policy," House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, told me, "but we're trying to make it not so bad." At this writing, it is not sure even this break in the Republican retreat will last.