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Why GOP is shifting from tax cuts to reducing debt

New tactic may appeal to independent voters, but it puts Republican lawmakers on Hill at odds with Bush.

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Congressional Republicans - who looked as if they were about to be outmaneuvered again by the White House - have dramatically shifted their strategy on next year's federal budget.

Gone are the big Republican tax cuts. Gone are even the little tax reductions. Now they are putting top priority on reducing the national debt.

After President Clinton vetoed GOP cuts of the estate tax and the marriage-tax penalty, Republicans could have come back with versions more to the liking of the White House. They didn't.

Instead - needing a good campaign issue - Republicans in Congress now want to apply most of the $268 budget surplus to reducing the federal debt.

The plan surprised even the White House. It also puts congressional Republicans somewhat at odds with their presidential nominee, George W. Bush.

"You're seeing a bifurcation between the congressional Republican strategy and the Bush strategy," says Marshall Wittmann, a fellow with the Washington-based Hudson Institute. "A few weeks ago, they were looking to Bush's coattails to help them, and now they've jettisoned the coattails and it's every man for themselves."

Mr. Bush has campaigned on a $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan. Although GOP lawmakers would presumably work with Bush, should he win, to cut taxes in future years, the Gore campaign is gleefully proclaiming that congressional Republicans have "effectively declared their nominee's budget dead on arrival."

But analysts say this new tack, which would apply 90 percent of the surplus next year to debt reduction, could give Republicans leverage on the budget with President Clinton. It also plays well with the public, especially among swing independent voters.

"It's a smart move," says Frank Yang, a Democratic pollster. "Paying down the debt clearly tracks better with voters than a big tax cut."

Voters favor paying down the debt over cutting taxes by a 16-point margin, according to a recent Hart-Teeter poll.

Given the issue's popularity, some analysts are surprised the GOP didn't adopt this strategy earlier.

"It was polling well with the public, and, most significantly, is high on the list of independent voters," says Mr. Wittmann. "It also serves as a useful lever to guard against the spending demands of the Democrats and of the Clinton White House."

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