WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats continued their drive Wednesday to shrink President Bush's cherished $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut proposal with efforts to shift some of the money to farmers, schools and other popular programs.
The Senate planned to vote on a provision by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., that would trim the tax reduction by $88 billion. Democrats would use the funds instead to provide extra aid over the next decade to farmers, who have been hit by low crop prices and losses from droughts in recent years.
"We have a crisis in American agriculture. It is deep, it is threatening," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.
Republicans were countering with an alternative by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that would provide $64 billion in additional farm assistance. Rather than coming from Bush's tax cut, the funds would come from projected federal surpluses.
"This is a responsible approach," said Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., the only Democrat who has committed himself to supporting Bush's proposed tax cut.
The maneuvering came as the Senate continued debating a Republican-drafted $1.94 trillion budget for 2002 that outlines Bush's fiscal vision of lower taxes and reined-in federal spending. The House approved a similar package last week.
With Vice President Dick Cheney already having broken his first tie vote in the Senate, GOP leaders have promised that by week's end they will push the budget through the chamber, which is divided 50-50 between the two parties.
Congress' budget, which does not need the president's signature, sets overall spending and tax targets. Later bills enact actual changes in taxes and spending and fill in the details.
Even so, both sides want the budget to reflect their priorities -- and to signal that important constituencies will be well treated. Farmers have reached that level in recent years, having won $25 billion in special aid over the last three years from Congress.
But they were only one of several groups Democrats were seeking to shower with money they hope to carve from Bush's tax reduction, the centerpiece of his economic plan. Waiting in the wings was Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who was proposing to shift $250 billion from Bush's tax cut to education.
In the first such battle Tuesday, Republicans used Cheney's first tie-breaking vote to help defeat a Democratic effort to divert money from Bush's tax cut to a new prescription drug program.
"Let's go about prescription benefits in a fiscally responsible way, not in a way just to try and score points," said Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., as he scolded Democrats.
In the first showdown vote on the budget, the Senate voted 51-50 on Tuesday -- with Cheney making the difference -- for GOP language to double the $153 billion Bush wants for the coming decade to create prescription drug coverage. The additional money, if provided, would come from projected budget surpluses.
Having demonstrated their support for enlarging Bush's drug benefits plan, Republicans then voted against a Democratic alternative that would have also doubled prescription drug spending but would have taken the money from Bush's tax cut. The amendment by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Bob Graham, D-Fla., was defeated 50-50 without Cheney voting. Ties lose under Senate rules.
The roll calls highlighted the partisan divide in the battle over Bush's fiscal plans. Sens. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and Miller were the only lawmakers to defect from their parties' positions on both votes, though leaders of both parties are still trying to nail down votes from several other moderates.
Senate GOP leaders concede that some Democratic efforts to shrink Bush's tax cut might succeed. But they still insist they will push a budget through the Senate by week's end reflecting Bush's priorities.
"We will send a $1.6 trillion, approximately," tax cut to Bush, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., told reporters. "It could be a little over; it could be a little under."
The GOP effort to ensure they have 50 votes for the budget's final passage -- all that is needed with Cheney's support -- remains a work in progress. Moderate Sens. James Jeffords, R-Vt., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., remain uncommitted, despite efforts to woo them by both sides.
Looking for middle ground, a group of Democratic moderates led by Sen. John Breaux, D-La., planned to announce their own proposal Wednesday for $1.25 trillion in tax cuts over the next 10 years.
On the Net: Senators' Web sites: http://www.senate.gov/senators/index.cfm
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