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Why GOP keeps beating tax-cut drum

Lawmakers, working home districts, insist they can rouse a latent

When Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, whose district includes Littleton, meets with constituents and they talk more about tax cuts than gun control, he sees a winning issue.

His town-hall meetings this summer, part of more than 600 such Republican gatherings across the United States, are aimed at selling the party's plan to cut $792 billion in taxes over the next decade.

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Despite the perpetual grumbling about how much Uncle Sam takes from their paychecks, polls show tax relief is low on Americans' list of priorities. That's despite the fact that, as Representative Tancredo counts it, the overall tax burden is at its highest since World War II.

Nevertheless, as Republicans use the summer recess to lobby the nation to support their tax-cut plan - a plan few in the party expect to become law - they believe they are at least waking a latent frustration. They also believe it will cost Democrats politically, if not this fall, then next.

"It's a bigger issue" than people make it out to be, says Tancredo, looking out the window on the Rocky Mountains at the close of another town-hall meeting. "We absolutely have a [politically] winning hand on this. Why do you think Clinton wants to negotiate?"

The GOP plan, passed just before the recess, would drop income tax rates by 1 percent, eliminate the estate tax, and reduce capital-gains rates.

When President Clinton receives the bill next month and vetoes it as promised, it is still unclear which party will pay the political consequences.

Administration strategists are concerned enough to fire periodic salvos at the tax-cut scheme. Mr. Clinton this week warned that it would throw the nation into permanent debt and hobble social programs like student loans and efforts to reel in deadbeat dads.

The White House has signaled a willingness to compromise, offering a $250 billion plan of its own aimed at the middle class. But a seemingly insurmountable chasm lies between it and the Republican plan.

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The White House and Congress are expected to push through the necessary budget-appropriations bills when lawmakers return from recess after Labor Day.

But the larger goals, such as the Clinton administration's proposed Medicare prescription-drug reform or the congressional tax cut, are not given much of a chance of passing.

Battles over bucks

When it comes to battling Republicans on economic issues, Mr. Clinton has almost always prevailed - from his first budget clash to deflecting blame for the 1995-'96 government shutdown.

But this time the GOP thinks it will be the victor in the fiscal policy fight.

"It's a trap the Democrats fall into at both the state and national level," says Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R). "Democrats always want to keep more money and oppose tax cuts. It's the wrong policy, and it's bad politics."

Hoping for a veto?

Indeed, by some calculation, a veto would be better for Republicans than a compromise.

"If it's vetoed, they can trumpet it. In some ways, a veto may be better for them," says longtime political analyst Fred Brown of The Denver Post.

Democrats this summer have been objecting to the GOP plan rather than actively campaigning against it. The Democratic counter-response has been an on-message use of the word "risky." They warn the move could jeopardize efforts to bolster Social Security and Medicare.

"I voted against the risky Republican bill," Rep. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado said in a statement. "It puts Social Security and Medicare at risk, and more importantly, does nothing to pay down the national debt and help our economy."

Warning of risks

Other Democrats are raising concerns about the effect tax cuts would have on the larger economy and warning about the impact an economic downturn would have on projected budget surpluses.

"What happens if the projections don't work out?" asks Rep. Diana DeGette (D), whose district includes Denver. "Colorado, better than anyone else, understands boom and bust," she says, referring to the state's historically cyclical economy.

To be sure, taxes and tax refunds are on the minds of residents here.

Early in the 1990s, Coloradoans voted to refund themselves part of the state surplus. This year's total amounts to more than $400 per married couple and $200 for single taxpayers.

It is the prospect of pocketing that cash at year's end that Republicans believe could swing voters their way. And they claim that polling data showing a disinterest in refunds are flawed.

People are asked "in a perfect world, would you like to have money to fix problems like education or on a self-interested tax cut," says Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "They always answer in an altruistic, abstract world."

Mr. Ciruli points to Texas, where the state sales tax was recently suspended for back-to-school shoppers. "There were practically riots," he says.

"I can't believe the polls that say [voters] don't want money back," says Rep. Joel Hefley (R) of Colorado. "I believe the president is going to be under enormous pressure if he vetoes it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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