WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans are trying to determine how much of President Bush's proposed $726 billion economic package they can save after Democrats and GOP moderates said the tax cuts should be sliced in half.
Seemingly short of the votes to pass Bush's entire stimulus plan, Republican senators scheduled a Tuesday strategy session to discuss what to do.
Some centrist senators are insisting that the overall package be slashed to $350 billion through 2013, which could doom its centerpiece proposal to end the tax on corporate dividends. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., and conservative lawmakers were fighting to keep the package as large as possible until it becomes certain they don't have the votes to do so.
The move to shrink the tax cut reflected a sensitivity to federal deficits expected to set new records. Opponents were also juxtaposing the substantial costs of the possible war with Iraq with the view, repeated often by Democrats, that the tax reductions would go largely to the rich.
"This budget would provide a massive giveaway to the few while our sons and daughters fight a war overseas," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "That's not sacrifice, that's not responsible."
GOP defenders of the tax reductions said they were needed to shake the economy out of its doldrums.
"We don't need to get into recriminations or blame," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "The question is what do we do now to grow this country, get our economy moving."
Republicans were thinking about reducing the tax cuts on their own if they could strike a deal with both parties' moderates to limit the extra spending that would result, GOP aides said.
Tuesday's closed-door meeting came as the Senate was spending a second day debating a $2.2 trillion budget for next year. The budget takes the tax cuts into account, and language in the fiscal blueprint would prohibit opponents from derailing the economic package by filibuster.
Also in jeopardy was a budget provision that would allow oil drilling to begin in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another of Bush's top domestic goals. The drilling proposal has pitted the administration and industry groups against Democrats and environmentalists.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a chief supporter of the proposal, has said he believes he lacks the 50 votes necessary to keep the language in the budget, said one Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity. Stevens spokeswoman Melanie Alvord said the senator did not know how many votes he has, but last week GOP sources said supporters were one vote shy.
Republicans were hoping to push tax and spending blueprints through both the House and Senate this week. The budget, when the two chambers complete a compromise, will set overall limits on revenues and expenditures, with changes to be enacted in separate bills later. It does not need the president's signature.
Overall, the House and Senate budgets would make room for most of Bush's proposed $1.57 trillion in tax cuts over the coming decade, though some form of the economic package is the only portion likely to become law this year.
Neither the House nor the Senate includes money for a military confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Congressional aides said that if fighting begins this week, Bush could send Congress legislation to pay for it by Friday. The price tag could be as much as $90 billion, including money for domestic security and aid to Israel.