In a 53-47 vote that left Senate Republicans stunned and forced into a meeting to regroup, the Senate approved an amendment by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin that adds about $250 billion to the education budget and reduces the national debt by an additional $224 billion over Bush's numbers. The new spending will come from the proposed tax cut, putting the new figure at closer to $1.1 trillion than the $1.6 trillion promised by Bush.
This blow came minutes after two liberal Republicans Vermont's Jim Jeffords and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, who both voted for the Harkin amendment announced they no longer would support the Bush tax plan, but preferred a smaller cut introduced by Louisiana Democrat John Breaux. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter also voted for the Harkin amendment but has not endorsed the Breaux tax plan, which spends more money on education and debt reduction.
"This is a huge victory," said Democratic leader Tom Daschle, S.D. "This is the first time the Senate has given an on-the-record objection to the size of the president's tax proposal."
While neither development ensures defeat of the full Bush tax plan, it does leave his troops in Congress reeling and forced to develop an alternative plan for getting the measure through to the president's desk.
Daschle and Breaux used separate press conferences to warn that Bush is going to have to negotiate with Democrats if he wants any of his proposals to pass through the equally divided Senate.
"These two developments say with an exclamation point that the president has to negotiate with us on a budget," Daschle said.
The tax plan offered by Breaux is a rough outline of a tax cut of $1.25 trillion over 10 years that splits the difference between the sub-$1 trillion cut favored by the Democratic leadership and the $1.6 trillion cut offered on behalf of the president.
Support from Chafee and Jeffords is significant because it offsets the defection of Georgia Democrat Zell Miller, who continues to vote with the GOP on tax cuts. Another moderate Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, had been considered another possible defector to the president's plan, but he appeared with Breaux to support that plan instead.
Neither proposal kills Bush's promised plan in its entirety, but it does add drama to a budget process that had been considered boring.
The best option for the Republicans is to bring Jeffords, Chafee or Specter back into the fold by funding the programs they support with revenue not already promised as part of the tax cut.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told United Press International that he had just discussed options with the White House and that he expected to introduce an amendment to overrule the Harkin plan referred to as a second-degree amendment that would increase funding for education without siphoning it away from the tax cut. But that would require reductions in other programs to succeed, which could lead to new objections from other lawmakers.
Immediately after the vote, which originally went through 52 to 48, Majority Leader Trent Lott used a common strategy of changing his vote from against the Harkin amendment to for it, a move that allowed him to call for immediate reconsideration. Republicans then fled the Senate chamber for the shelter of a joint meeting with House members to discuss the next move.
Jeffords seems more likely to budge on his recent stances against the Bush tax plan, according to a GOP Senate leadership source. He has indicated that the current proposals "underfund" his pet programs education and assistance for the disabled and seems skeptical that the administration will make concessions to get his vote.
Liberal Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said that despite the president's past statements that education was a top priority, Bush had underestimated the resolve of Democrats to ensure more spending.
"The president has told us from the beginning that education is his top priority," Durbin said. "We remembered this. The president did not."
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