Budget Battle: David Brooks and Tom Oliphant
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RAY SUAREZ: With analysis by Brooks and Oliphant. That’s David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe. Well, as Kwame Holman reported, you saw the first cracks in Fortress Bush. The question is whether this is a big deal — a vote to reduce the size of the tax cut. David Brooks?
DAVID BROOKS: Pretty big, Bush said the 1.6 figure was not too big, not too little; it was Goldilocks and Goldilocks just kicked the bucket. It is going to be a blow. And I think it’s sort of a warning to Bush. First, that his period of super-Bush, the pumped up Bush who could leap over the opposition in a single bound, is over.
He appealed to members of his own party on party loyalty grounds, on the grounds of helping him as president. And those appeals fell flat. And it’s now clear that he is going to have to negotiate on the substance. Now, history shows that when you negotiate on a few senators, you give them what they want, you can win them over but it should be alarming to the White House that so close, seven or eight weeks into the presidency they’re already — they can’t even carry this sort of vote.
RAY SUAREZ: Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well it’s not clear that they ever could. The problem that I’ve always had with the Goldilocks argument, the $1.6 trillion over 10 years was just right, was that there has never been a credible proposal for something more than that. So if $1.6 trillion is really the top or too high, then almost by definition compromise takes it down. That is an argument that seems to have escaped the people around President Bush who, somewhat like campaign finance reform, seem to have positioned him out on a limb without enough support for that limb.
DAVID BROOKS: It should be said we are dealing with be abstractions here; the $1.6 trillion is over 10 years, the bulk of that tax cut comes in the sixth and the seventh year. It’s like planning the family budget for the year 2007. So, you know, 1.6 trillion, 800 billion, or 1.25 trillion in the middle — it really is a bit of fairy tale and really symbolic votes right now.
RAY SUAREZ: But the number took on a life of its own, didn’t it? I mean, in part the answer that it was too big or too small that he heard from the two parties were in response to a number he put out there and said he was going to ride with all the way.
DAVID BROOKS: Which was posting his flag in a cloud.
TOM OLIPHANT: And remembering also that at some point this does become a battle over ideas and substance. And I think it’s a fair criticism of the administration that the argument has never really been made for each of the components of what makes up 1.6 trillion dollars. Do you — why do you need across the board rate cuts? I’m not saying the argument can’t be made. The observation is that it hasn’t been made.
And, as a result, if you have a lower figure, you can start a negotiation that is almost content-free. I mean — the suggested compromise here is coming from John Breaux, the Democrat from Louisiana. It is simply a number. It has no specific rates associated with it – no tax philosophy associated with it. It’s just a number.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, people looking at the results might find it curious that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was one ever the 53 votes against the president. Explain why he did that.
DAVID BROOKS: He had to switch his vote at the last minute so he could then challenge the vote and ask them to revote. The hope is – you know one of the Senators who was opposing this was Jim Jeffords, who wants to get $180 billion over ten years for disabilities education. He is holding it up over this, and one suspects – and the White House is negotiating with him — that at the end of the day they will give in to him but there are a lot of other moderates who are really drifting — Chafee of Rhode Island and some of the two Maine women senators. And I think what Bush has done is gotten away from his winning formula, which is sort of a progressive conservatism — some progressive ideas mixed with real conservative ideas.
Over the past few weeks the progressive ideas, the education plan, faith based charity, have withered on the vine. We’ve had nothing but arsenic in the water, drilling in Alaska, and for a New England Senator, you open the paper – in the New York Times today you see the Bush plan – the Bush administration was thinking of getting rid of salmonella testing for school lunches, you say to yourself, I have got to put a little distance between myself and him.
TOM OLIPHANT: But the — there is some very hard ball politics being played here. I mean, I was struck yesterday, for example, that in seeking Senator Jeffords’ vote and also in seeking the vote of a fairly conservative freshman Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the White House had resorted to calling up, getting in touch with the media in their states. And it’s always seemed to me that when you get in touch with the Vermont media to kind of attempt to put pressure on Jim Jeffords, or if you are calling your pals in the Nebraska media to lean on Ben Nelson, you are really almost confessing that you haven’t got them.
It’s not a technique that woos Senators; it tends to be a technique that hardens their opposition. And I’m struck tonight — I still believe — rather I can’t believe it isn’t possible to woo Senators because – after all — this is just a budget resolution. You can get them with language, you can get them with commitments to do something later. And the idea that as of right now, the White House has not come up with a way to get Jeffords back or bring Nelson on or change Arlen Specter’s vote strikes me as significant.
RAY SUAREZ: But aren’t these same senators that you are talking about, the crossovers, suddenly some of the most important men and women in America by virtue of being close to the center now?
DAVID BROOKS: Listen, if you were an enterprising reporter, which we may be, the Senate is the place to be. The Senate is more important than the White House and the place to be in the Senate is in the center. I don’t know why any senator declares early on anything because the last to declare are the most powerful. And we are seeing Lincoln Chafee, this guy who just got there, suddenly wielding this enormous power and this is something the Bush team hasn’t really worked to win them over yet.
TOM OLIPHANT: And yet yesterday and last night the White House and this same Senate was able to come to basic agreement on the President’s public school education proposal. There is still some details to be worked out, but the difference here was that they determined ahead a time there was going to be a public school education bill with reform and more money and accountability in it. And so they went out and negotiated it. Here, I think the White House seeks victory. Perhaps the Democrats seek defeat. There isn’t this advanced commitment to come together and have a result. And consequently, you see them still posturing on the eve of a very important vote.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Senate may be where it’s at but the House is still up and running and voting. David, let’s talk about how things are different and how they’re the same over there?
DAVID BROOKS: The House — the Republicans just roll over everything. And this is the ultimate Bush strategy. They are going to get what they want in the House. They are going to have to make compromises in the Senate so the bill will go to a conference where the two houses get together. The White House thinks in the conference they can get everything they want. Then they go back to the Senate and senators have to decide am I going to vote up or down. There is no more room for compromise. And they think in the end those moderate Republicans will say ok I’ll go with it.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, but the trouble is by again pinning your administration’s fortunes to a specific number, $1.6 trillion and the House components of it that they keep rolling over the Democrats to pass add up to a lot more than that — they may be putting too much of a burden on a Conference Committee that it can sustain — and I think that vote yesterday was signaling that the Senate is prepared right now to vote no unless what it did yesterday is respected.
DAVID BROOKS: I’d also mention one more impediment to the Bush plan which Dick Durbin raised in the segment just before. The problem with the plan not only is the size — the $1.6 trillion — it’s that it’s so back loaded. And there are a lot of members on both the right and the left who think, “We don’t care about what is going to happen in 2007. We may be going into recession right now.”
So Durbin has an amendment. Joe Lieberman has an amendment. There are a lot of Republicans would who would like to see a capital gains rate cut to stimulate the economy right now. I think actually the greater danger to the Bush tax plan is not these arguments over 1.6 or 1.2; it’s an immediate short-range tax plan may displace the long range Bush plan.
TOM OLIPHANT: So in the process the amendment that passed yesterday, Senator Harkin’s amendment, almost every one of the amendments is structured the same way. The one that succeeded that Harkin offered half of the $448 billion that they take away goes to fund education programs — not specified. It’s language only. The only other half, though, goes to debt reduction. And I think you can see in the Senate the political attractiveness not only of some additional money for certain programs where there is broad support, but now you can see the political support that debt reduction over and beyond what the administration has proposed exists.
RAY SUAREZ: Tom Oliphant, David Brooks, thank you both.