WASHINGTON - Thwarted by Democrats and threatened by a potentially devastating break in their ranks, Republican Senate leaders failed again yesterday to complete action on a $1.35 trillion tax-cut bill that they still hope to send to President Bush by Memorial Day.
Democratic leaders, who have been frustrated in their failure to reshape Bush's tax-cut proposal, say they will continue to block final action until they have made their point that the measure is unfair and unwise.
Their stalling tactic, begun late Monday, took on new significance last night as Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, said he would announce today whether he will switch his party affiliation to Democratic or independent and support a Democrat for majority leader. That would effectively throw control of the evenly divided Senate to the Democrats.
Republican leaders seemed stunned by what could be a cataclysmic development for their party - and for the president's entire legislative agenda, which would be threatened if the Republicans lost control of the Senate.
Democrats offered scores of unsuccessful amendments intended to force Republicans to choose between the tax cuts and other priorities, such as prescription drug benefits and education funding.
"We are going to continue to fight for these issues as long as it takes," declared Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "This is not about obstruction. This is not about delay. This is about making sure that the message is as clear as it can be about the important choices that the American people must face as we debate this critical bill."
Bush urged lawmakers to "stop [the] delay and move forward" on the tax-cut bill, while Vice President Dick Cheney met with House and Senate Republicans who will be involved in negotiations to produce a final version of the measure.
But the Democrats, who had been dispirited at the start of the tax-cut debate last week, said they found a renewed sense of purpose once Majority Leader Trent Lott tried to bring the issue to a speedy vote Monday night. Now, Democrats are determined to sustain the fight at least long enough to prevent Bush and the Republicans' from meeting their self-imposed Memorial Day deadline.
"Senator Lott just pushed us too hard," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat. "This is a battle for the soul of the Senate."
Principally at issue are the conflicting approaches of the two parties over tax-cut legislation. Bush and the Republicans generally favor a large tax cut, with benefits tilted toward those at the top of the income scale. Democrats prefer smaller tax cuts, aimed at the less affluent, with money left over for greater spending on government programs.
But also roiling through the debate was the unusual dynamic of the 50-50 Senate, where any sena- tor's absence or defection can make the difference between success and failure. While Jeffords voted with the Democrats on some of their amendments, he returned to the Republican fold on a key vote on a Daschle amendment that failed on a 50-50 tie.
The Senate battle comes as Bush seemed on the verge of an early victory on the highest priority of his administration: a tax cut that would return to taxpayers at least one-fourth of the federal budget surplus.
The tax-cut legislation includes the four elements of Bush's proposal: a broad across-the-board rate cut, a doubling of the $500-a-child tax cut, a reduction of the "marriage penalty" on many two-income couples and a phasing out of the estate tax.
All income taxpayers would benefit from a drop to 10 percent from 15 percent at the low end of the bottom bracket that applies to the first $6,000 of taxable income for individuals and the first $12,000 for married couples. That would mean an immediate cut of $300 for individuals and $600 for married couples, probably received through a change in withholding tables.
Most of the benefits would be delayed for five years or more.
The closest the Democrats came to changing the tax bill came on a proposal co-sponsored by Daschle and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, that would have reduced the tax cut on earners at the top bracket in order to expand the 15 percent bracket to include taxpayers now paying at a higher rate.