The politics of the tax bill finds Democrats with the high cards

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders are wallowing in self-congratulation because both the Senate and House have passed tax cuts. Why not? Giving money back to constituents is the easiest thing for any politician to do.

But the Republican attempt to seize the public-relations initiative on taxes is understandable. They are going into weeks of bargaining with President Clinton in which the White House and the Democrats hold most of the political high cards even if they lack the votes to make up a majority.

The first is, of course, Mr. Clinton's own high standing with the electorate. Polls consistently show his performance approved by 58 to 60 percent of the voters, an obvious response to the continuing health of the economy. By contrast, Congress still gets approval ratings well under 50 percent, and the most prominent Republican, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, is still down under 30 percent in some surveys.

Then there is the political history. Over the years the Democrats have been remarkably effective in projecting an image of the Republicans as the party of the fat cats and the ones who write tax legislation to protect the affluent at the expense of the working classes. The White House is now pointing out, for example, that 50 percent of the tax reductions in the plan passed by the House last month would go to the 5 percent of Americans in the highest income brackets.

To a point, the Republicans have a defensible argument here. They contend that any significant tax reduction plan inevitably will give more back to the affluent because they are the ones who pay most of the taxes.

Alternate statistics

The Republicans have tried to counter with their own statistics, principally their claim that three-fourths of their tax reductions would be realized by those with incomes under $75,000 a year. Whether they are being heard is another question; the Republicans' own polls suggest that they are not.

The Republicans also are being stung by the Democrats' charge that the $500-per-child tax credit in their legislation won't apply to more than one-third of all the children because they come from families with little or no tax liability. Thus, it can be argued that the credit intended to help with education expenses doesn't reach those who need it the most.

In political terms, the central problem for the Republicans is the way President Clinton has managed to occupy the center and present himself on one issue after another as the champion of the middle class. That approach won him an easy re-election last year and has kept him high in the polls even while he is a target of several investigations.

In putting forward his own tax plan the other day, the president tinkered at the margins to make it more carefully targeted at lower middle-income and even some low-income families -- an approach that the White House obviously hopes will mollify critics in Mr. Clinton's own party who voted against the Republican plans as giveaways to the rich. And there were some hints of progress -- for example, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's statement that the Clinton plan "puts the priority of helping middle-income families above the Republican priority of helping wealthy special interests."

A liberal's complaint

Not all the liberal Democrats were as conciliatory, of course. Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, complained, for instance, that Mr. Clinton did not press for a family tax credit for all of the so-called "working poor," even if they pay no income taxes now. In the real world of politics, however, sniping from the most liberal Democrats is not all bad news for a president positioning himself so determinedly in the center.

All things considered, Mr. Clinton's new tax proposals are close enough to those the Republicans have produced to make a settlement likely without the president being forced to use the veto. But if he needs to do so, it is Mr. Clinton rather than the Republicans who holds the high political ground.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/04/97

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