Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tax-Cut Outcome Heralds the Rise of Senate Moderates ; Small Band of Dissenters from Both Sides Held Firm for Middle Ground. but Their Victory May Prove Hollow

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tax-Cut Outcome Heralds the Rise of Senate Moderates ; Small Band of Dissenters from Both Sides Held Firm for Middle Ground. but Their Victory May Prove Hollow

Article excerpt

After weeks of intense negotiation, Congress is closing in on the biggest tax cut in a generation - and a new appreciation of how a 50- 50 Senate is changing the rules of Washington.

This week's deal on a budget resolution marks a rare victory for Senate moderates, who proved that a small group in the middle can determine the outcome - if they all stay together.

In years past, the centrists were often the ones that didn't count. They'd make their case, then fall back into the party line when the big votes were counted. And no vote is as big as the budget vote.

The difference this year is that the stragglers didn't yield. They said they would not accept the $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut that President Bush and the House proposed, or anything like it. They forced the Senate to scale it back to $1.18 trillion last month. And they held their ground while lawmakers negotiated in a conference committee, which did not - as was expected - just split the difference between House and Senate versions.

Instead, negotiators bumped up the Senate version of the 10-year tax cut to $1.25 trillion - or $1.35 trillion over 11 years, including a retroactive reduction for 2001. That's the number that a critical mass of centrists said they would accept. And without their votes, the resolution wouldn't make it though the Senate when the compromise version is voted on.

"It does make a difference when moderates can hold together. And we did," says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska.

But it could prove something of a hollow victory, as this compromise "blueprint" for taxing and spending in the next fiscal year is by no means the final word. Already, lawmakers in both parties are signaling plans to legislate around it.

The changes anticipated in the fiscal 2002 budget, for instance, include an across-the-board reduction in income tax rates, as well as repeal (or relief) of the estate tax and marriage penalty, and a doubling of the child tax credit to $1,000. GOP leaders already concede all that can't be accomplished within the new guidelines.

If the marriage penalty is only eased but not eliminated under the new budget agreement, Senate GOP sponsors are calling for an additional tax bill to complete the job. …

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