WASHINGTON - The Senate voted Tuesday to take a nibble out of the tax cuts President Bush has proposed for prodding the economy, but Republicans seemed to have the votes to approve a budget endorsing most of the $726 billion in tax reductions he wants.
By voice vote, senators agreed to divert $13 billion from the tax package and use the money to beef up veterans' benefits, one of the most politically popular parts of the budget. Following a $100 billion reduction in the tax cut approved last week, that would leave $613 billion for tax reductions through 2013.
The vote came as the Senate worked through a stack of amendments to the $2.2 trillion budget for next year. By 56-43, the chamber rejected a fiscal blueprint written by Democrats with a smaller tax cut than the GOP proposal and more money for prescription drug benefits, domestic security and other programs.
Final passage was planned for Wednesday. Participants from both parties, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that none of the amendments likely to be approved would drastically alter the tax and spending framework.
A week ago, moderates of both parties were expressing concern about cutting taxes at a time of war and expected record federal deficits.
But an effort by moderates and Democrats to whittle the tax cut's price tag down to $350 billion through 2013 failed when several centrists voted against it. Democrats last week did successfully divert $100 million from the tax reduction to expenses for the war in Iraq.
Several GOP moderates say they will vote to approve the budget because of the spending limits it would clamp on Congress. They say it is also important because it would help the later tax bill by allowing it to pass the Senate with only 51 votes, rather than the 60 often required by controversial legislation.
"If we end up with no budget, it would be chaos," moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Monday in an interview.
Facing a potentially embarrassing wartime setback for Bush on one of the cornerstones of his domestic agenda, the White House and Senate GOP leaders lobbied senators to ensure they had enough votes for final budget passage. If 60 votes were required for passage of subsequent tax legislation, as would be true without an approved budget, solid Democratic opposition would all but guarantee its defeat.
Congress' budget maps tax and spending plans that are put into effect by other bills later in the year. For it to become final, the House and Senate will have to approve a compromise measure. The House version, approved last Friday, includes Bush's full $726 billion in tax reductions, but has deeper spending cuts than the Senate's plan.
Moderate GOP Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Olympia Snowe of Maine signed a letter earlier this month insisting on a tax cut not exceeding $350 billion. But both have also said they believe Congress must have a budget to work with, and both are expected to vote 'yes' on final passage.
Republicans hold a 51-48 Senate majority, plus a Democratic-leaning independent.
GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island are expected to vote against the budget, arguing now is not the time for tax reductions.
But Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., has said he will vote yes. If he is the only Democrat to do so, Vice President Dick Cheney would break the 50-50 tie and the budget would be approved.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said he might vote for the budget too because it endorses some of his priorities, such as aid to states facing cash problems of their own.
"I'm leaning toward voting for the budget," he said in an interview Monday.
The Senate budget asserts that it reaches balance in 2013, the House plan in 2012. Both are premised on planned spending cuts that Democrats and many analysts say are so stringent that they are unlikely ever to win congressional approval.
The House plans savings from benefit programs like Medicaid and farm aid, and virtually freezes spending in a range of other domestic areas. Many of the Senate's savings would come at the end of the coming decade, which probably would be overruled by future Congresses and never go into effect, critics say.