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Democrats on Trail Rip Stimulus Talks With Bush

By Jonathan Weisman and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In Washington, as anxious eyes were fixed on the stock markets, President Bush and Democratic leaders settled into a detente yesterday, cautiously moving toward agreement on an economic stimulus package.

But presidential campaign seasons are not conducive to bipartisanship, and Democratic candidates laid into Bush. Some even questioned why their congressional leaders were sitting down with the man they have made their common enemy.

"We should not compromise with George Bush, who just wants more tax cuts for corporations," said former senator John Edwards (N.C.). "Congress ought to send him the right economic stimulus bill and dare him to veto it."

For Democratic contenders deeply invested in demonizing Bush, it was jarring to see House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) standing by his side at the White House. While Bush and the Democratic leaders spoke of cooperation, the would-be leaders of the free world were having none of it.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) placed the world's economic jitters squarely on Bush's shoulders. "As we look at what's happening in the economy, it's very important to recognize how the policies of the last seven years have contributed," she said.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) made no mention of the apparent outbreak of bipartisanship during a speech on the economy in South Carolina. Instead, he excoriated Bush as "a president who's done more to contribute to this country's widening inequality than anyone since Herbert Hoover, a president whose tax breaks for wealthy Americans who didn't need them and didn't ask for them have only encouraged the mind-set in Washington and on Wall Street that 'what's good for me is good enough.' "

Edwards took the criticism one step further, urging party leaders to end talks with Bush.

Republican candidates remained nearly silent about the rush for compromise on a stimulus plan, even as conservatives on and off Capitol Hill said the one-time tax refunds Bush has proposed would accomplish little beyond expanding the budget deficit. GOP critics say Bush should stick to conservative principles of lowering tax burdens on businesses and of encouraging work by lowering the highest marginal tax rate.

Republican White House hopefuls have already adopted many of those prescriptions. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney announced a plan last week that would permanently lower tax rates for lower-income Americans, giving them an average rebate of $400 for 2007 and extending the benefit into the future. He would also offer business tax cuts to generate job growth.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani proposed tax reforms that he said would amount to the biggest tax cut in U.S. history, but the package does not include rebates for individuals. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) proposed to cut the corporate tax rate and offer credits for more research, but he also does not favor individual rebates.

Together, their plans represent the thinking of supply-side conservatives and in essence repudiate Bush's proposal for a one-time tax rebate for individuals. But no GOP candidate has joined conservative academics in directly criticizing Bush's approach.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Romney, said only that the former governor's economic proposals provide "both short-term economic stimulus right away, as well as long-term." He added that "it gets liquidity right into the market very quickly . . . and gives people additional purchasing power to buy things."

But Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative economic political action committee, called such reticence "a disappointing lack of leadership."

For the GOP candidates, the bleak economic news provided both opportunities and challenges as they compete in a tight contest in Florida. Campaigning in Coral Springs, Romney said that "people recognize now more than ever that it makes a difference having a president who has actually had a job in the private sector."

For McCain and Giuliani, the new focus on the domestic economy is trickier. Each has spent much of the past year touting his experience and leadership on foreign policy issues. McCain recovered from a campaign crisis by tying himself to Bush on the issue of troop increases in Iraq. Giuliani is best known for his performance as mayor after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on his city.

But both are trying to pivot their message to the economy. Giuliani's communications director, Katie Levinson, said the issue will help him highlight what she described as his successes as mayor in reining in spending and cutting taxes.

Yesterday, several Giuliani supporters introduced legislation aimed at reforming the income tax, eliminating the estate tax and simplifying tax forms. The measure, dubbed the FAST Act, is co-sponsored by some lawmakers who are not backing Giuliani, but the plan's similarities with the former mayor's proposals is a sign of some limited interplay between Congress and the 2008 campaign.

Some Republicans saw an advantage in the discordant notes Democrats are sending out in Washington and on the campaign trail. Pelosi and Reid seemed to be ignoring the detailed policy solutions being put out by her party's White House hopefuls, they noted. And Obama, who is running as a "post partisan" candidate, appears to be showing the limits of his bipartisanship.

"Partisan hits may play well in Democratic primaries, but it's not going to help the economy," said Alex Conant, a Republican National Committee spokesman.

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