Democrats, Republicans tout dueling legislative agendas as conventions near
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With a keen eye on the American electorate, congressional Democrats and Republicans sought to draw attention Thursday to their dueling legislative agendas before lawmakers leave for their party conventions during a month-long summer recess.
Eager to counter White House criticisms of a "do-nothing Congress," Republicans hoped to shift the focus onto President Clinton Thursday by sending him a voter-popular measure to repeal the so-called "marriage penalty" tax, as well as passing another tax cut in the House designed to benefit Social Security recipients.
A number of Democrats joined the Republican majority in passing the Social Security measure, 265 to 169, late Thursday. The bill would repeal a 1993 tax imposed on the Social Security benefits of wealthier Americans -- what Republicans like to call the "Gore tax," as the vice president cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to ensure its passage.
The legislation would reduce taxes on Social Security for people with certain incomes -- above $34,000 for individuals and above $44,000 for married couples -- from 85 percent of benefits to the pre-1993 level of 50 percent. Its cost was estimated at $100 billion over 10 years.
Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the original purpose of the tax increase -- reducing the federal budget deficit -- has disappeared now that most projections indicate surpluses of about $2 trillion over the next decade.
"The budget surplus is real, not imagined, and it means that the tax is no longer needed," Archer, R-Texas, said Wednesday in a letter to Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.
Clinton: Republicans ignoring more pressing priorities
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats joined President Clinton at the White House Thursday in denouncing the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to take action on a host of other issues -- including a patients' bill of rights, a Medicare prescription drug plan for seniors, gun control and raising the minimum wage.
"We're here because we believe that the congressional Republican leadership is leaving town with a trunk full of unfinished business vital to the health of our economy and the well-being of our people," Clinton said during a gathering at the White House. He argued that the litany of tax cut proposals congressional Republicans are pushing would use a large chunk of the $1.9 trillion budget surplus estimated by the White House.
"This Congress has passed tax bills that would cost nearly 2 trillion dollars over 10 years. Even by the most optimistic estimates, this wouldn't leave a dime for lengthening the life of Social Security or Medicare, not one dime. Not a dime for voluntary and affordable Medicare prescription drug benefits or for education and school construction," Clinton said.
Republicans counter that theirs has been a "workhorse" Congress that has passed major tax cuts in defiance of threatened presidential vetoes.
Both the House and Senate passed their final versions of the marriage penalty bill last week, but held off sending the bill to the president until Thursday, fearing other news events -- such as the Middle East peace talks and Texas Gov. W. Bush's selection of a running mate -- would eclipse media attention of Clinton's expected veto, GOP aides said.
A couple dressed as bride and groom delivered the GOP bill to the White House Thursday afternoon, riding in a car with a sign on the bumper that reads: "Just Sign It."
"It's all for the cameras," said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker
Dennis Hastert, R- Illinois.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R- Illinois
The $90 billion measure would eliminate the additional income tax paid by many two-income couples within five years, but also benefit a large number of married people who currently do not pay a marriage penalty. Democrats have argued the plan is too costly and instead favor targeted relief for low-income married couples.
"We've finally gotten rid of the deficit, and they're hell-bent on bringing it back," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota. He argued that various GOP tax cut proposals are too costly.
"There's a right way and a wrong way to cut taxes. The Republican tax cuts reward the few, our tax cuts invest in the future," Daschle said.
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, with Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, to his left, argued Thursday that various GOP tax cut proposals are too costly.
By law, President Clinton has 10 days in which to sign or veto the bill, excluding Sundays. The window would allow him to wait until after the GOP convention, although House Republicans said they expect Clinton to act almost immediately upon receiving the bill -- as he has frequently done with legislation he intends to veto.
GOP vows not to let up on tax issue
Maintaining their flurry of tax-related activity, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters earlier this week that the first order of business in the House after the summer recess will be a vote to override Clinton's expected veto of the marriage penalty repeal. He predicted many Democrats who voted against the bill last week will join Republicans on the next marriage penalty votes.
House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas
"We have found that this issue, along with the death tax, has legs out in
the real world where real people live," DeLay said. "Some of them are catching
flak from back home for voting no," he said.
DeLay said a bill to eliminate the estate tax -- referred to by supporters as the "death tax" -- which also cleared Congress despite a veto threat, won't go to the White House until September. The extra time is needed to allow the American people to express themselves to Congress and the president and "raise the pressure" to provide Republicans "a better opportunity to override his veto," he said.
"We're interested in getting this done. This isn't playing politics. This
is real," DeLay said.
Democrats have complained that the GOP plan to gradually repeal the estate tax -- which currently affects only 2 percent of all estates -- is little more than a tax break for the wealthiest Americans. Republicans argue that the federal tax, which has a top marginal rate of 55 percent for the wealthiest estates, hinders investment and job creation and hurts family farms and small business owners particularly hard.
Senate and House Republicans have also focused on passing a flurry of other legislation before breaking for the summer the recess. They scrambled this week to put through a package of spending, tax cuts and a minimum wage increase they hope Clinton will sign into law.
GOP lawmakers said the package would include a $1 per hour minimum wage increase phased in over two years and some tax breaks for small businesses to defray the costs, as well as a repeal of a 3 percent tax on telephone calls. The measure would also appropriate funds for the Treasury Department, postal service and congressional operations for the next fiscal year starting October 1.
But that measure appeared stalled in the House Thursday, mainly over the size of the tax package aimed at small businesses and whether to retain provisions that would ease the embargo on food and medicine sales and travel restrictions to communist Cuba.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada
The measure is expected to hit a snag in the Senate, where Democrats have vowed to hold up the Republican-led bill to push their own priorities. They charge that Republicans are attempting to avoid contentious floor debates on more politically sensitive issues, such as gun control and a Medicare prescription drug plan, before the November elections.
"Why can't we do things in normal fashion?" asked Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada. "With all the time we waste around here trying to avoid difficult votes for Republicans we could get a lot done around here."
CNN's Major Garrett and Reuters contributed to this report.