THIS IS WHERE it starts to get interesting. Until now, George W. Bush has largely had a free ride. But as Democrats are getting a closer look at the details of his budget, not to mention his appointments to federal judgeships, party lines are hardening.
This past week the Institute for America's Future, joined by Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Jon Corzine, and Barbara Boxer, calculated that $555 billion of tax cuts proposed by President Bush for households with incomes over a million dollars just about matches the proposed 10-year budget cuts in programs for children and families. And 31 percent of lower-income families with children would get nothing back from the tax cut.
Count on liberal Democrats to make a good partisan fight over the obvious alternative - spend more money on children and families and less on giveaways to millionaires.
Although the preliminary budget resolution has already passed Congress, there is still time to change the distribution of the tax cuts. There is also the issue of whether the proposed changes in the tax code are legislated in perpetuity or for a finite period.
Under a provision of Senate budget procedure known as the Byrd amendment, a tax and budget resolution can bind Congress for no longer than 10 years. This provision can be waived, but that takes the votes of 60 senators.
The Bush budget is full of gimmicks, the most flagrant of which is to backload its impact on federal revenues. For example, the proposed elimination of the estate tax, which is to be phased in gradually, would cost the Treasury relatively little in the first few years and a total of $186 billion in the first 10 years. But in the second 10 years its cost would soar to $1.1 trillion.
Overall, the Bush tax cut, as slightly trimmed by Congress, would cost $1.35 trillion in the first 10 years but more than $4 trillion in the next decade. In effect, using tax dollars to meet additional social needs would simply be foreclosed.
But if the Democrats can muster 40 votes to defeat the resolution to waive the Byrd amendment, they can at least limit the damage to 10 years. If they can't hold 40 of their 50 senators, then the tax changes become effectively permanent.
On Thursday, the preliminary budget resolution passed the Senate narrowly, 53-47, with two Republicans voting against and five Democrats voting in favor. This prefigures a close and continuing fight over the details. Even some Republican senators, led by Olympia Snowe of Maine, want more tax relief for working families and less for millionaires.
On tax and budget policy, Bush may have won the opening skirmish only to lose the larger battle. What Democrats have going for them, ultimately, is the public's suspicion that the Republicans are still the party of the rich, while Democrats champion the ordinary man and woman. Nothing could demonstrate this more vividly than the Bush tax bill.
And speaking of 60 votes (the number it takes to defeat a filibuster), Democrats are also starting to play hardball on the other great consequential issue, federal judgeships. Since taking over the Senate in 1994, Republicans used a variety of gimmicks to block President Clinton's judicial appointees.
Occasionally, they used their Senate majority to refuse to confirm, but mostly they used party unity and a creative interpretation of senatorial courtesy to bottle up appointments that even a single Republican senator opposed. As a result, a record number of vacancies have accumulated for George W. Bush to fill.
Now that the Republicans have the White House, Republican senators propose to change the rules so that a single senator can no longer block an appointment. But the Democrats have awakened from their coma and have insisted on the same rules that applied in the Clinton era.
The conservative press is apoplectic. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot wrote indignantly that Senate Democrats were turning judicial selection into a brass-knuckled partisan fight. Gigot professed shock that ideology seems to be as much on the minds of Democratic senators as consultation.
But who set this tone during the Clinton years? And given that an ideologically motivated Supreme Court virtually stepped in to halt the counting and award Bush the White House, Democrats would be fools to just roll over and change the rules and allow Bush to take over the rest of the federal bench.
My colleague Robert Reich recently pronounced the Democrats a dead party. We'll soon see if they're coming back to life.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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