-- President Bush and his allies in business are launching a nationwide campaign to pressure reluctant lawmakers to vote for his tax cut, with Bush planning to travel heavily to strategic states in his first big push on a domestic issue since the run-up to the war.
The immediate issue is whether Congress, which plans to take up the tax cut in the next few weeks, will pass a 10-year package that is closer to the $726 billion in cuts Bush proposed or the $350 billion that some key Republican senators have said is their ceiling. Both parties said the fight is ultimately over whether Bush will go into 2004 looking like a strong steward of the economy, or laden with some of the same vulnerabilities that cost his father reelection.
The drive is effectively a dry run for next year's reelection race, complete with barnstorming by Cabinet members, television advertisements by groups friendly to the White House and ferocious counterprogramming by Democrats.
With polls showing many voters skeptical of whether the country can afford a tax cut now, administration officials plan to emphasize what they contend are the job-creating effects of the plan. The refined sales pitch, adopted at a White House strategy session this week, is that more job creation is better than less. Instead of calling it a tax cut, the administration insists on calling it "the president's jobs and growth package."
"What we can't afford is not to put people back to work," Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, back from Indiana and Louisiana, said in an interview.
Administration officials, looking to change two votes in the Senate after a budget vote put tentative parameters on the size of the tax cut last week, said they are willing to make deals with crucial lawmakers in return for support for a larger package. "At some point, they'll be approached and we'll say, 'What do you want?' " said a senior administration official involved in the negotiations. "This is a chance for senators to have a very positive role in the plan and get a lot of credit."
The White House is also planning hardball tactics. The senior official said Republican emissaries plan to visit Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was a party to the deal for a ceiling of $350 billion, and say, "You've let the president and the party down. What're you going to do about it?"
The administration is calling the travel program "Flood the Zone," a football analogy, and top officials will be featured at 80 events in 30 states this week and next, from the Omaha Chamber of Commerce to the City Club of Cleveland. Some of the appearances are to reward lawmakers who have stuck with Bush, others are to encourage those who might switch, and some are to punish those who appear determined to cut the size of his tax cut.
The events and advertising are targeted at the two GOP senators who insisted on cutting Bush's package in half -- George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) -- and at several moderate Democrats who might be persuaded to support Bush's plan: Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.).
"The whole game now is to get out of this town and start conversations with the American people about benefits of this plan and put grass-roots pressure on the elected members," said R. Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has set up a tax-relief Web site to allow workers to send automated letters and faxes to their lawmakers.
In Maine, the American Forest and Paper Association is providing sample letters to the editor to mill workers, and is urging them to show up at Snowe's town meetings to back the tax cut. Plant managers are being encouraged to go visit the editorial boards of their local newspapers to try to enlist support.
Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans has recorded customized state-by-state versions of the pitch that have been offered to 300 radio stations. The New Mexico version was translated into Navajo. Next week, he plans to phone into editorial board meetings to add heft to the in-person visits of Republican lawmakers. Evans plans stops in Michigan and Pennsylvania and at the New York Stock Exchange, where he will ring the opening bell.
White House allies are being urged to pull out all the stops. Former Treasury secretary James A. Baker III wrote an opinion article in today's Wall Street Journal saying he once believed deficit reduction was more important than tax relief. "But I was wrong," he wrote. "That's why I often refer to myself on this issue as a 'reformed drunk.' The success of the tax-rate reductions we achieved during President [Ronald] Reagan's two terms in office in the 1980s sobered me up."
After Bush returns from Easter weekend at his ranch here, aides said that he will begin a tax cut tour of day trips to states where the White House believes his clout will make a difference. The schedule also will be heavy with states that will determine the outcome of next year's presidential election.
Karl Rove, Bush's top strategist, gave a tax cut pep talk Wednesday to 80 lobbyists gathered across Lafayette Square from the White House. "Karl made it clear that the president has committed to spending a substantial amount of his political capital on this," said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and co-chairman of the Tax Relief Coalition, which includes 1,040 business groups.
The president's advisers have calculated that he can score substantial political points simply by fighting for his plan, regardless of the results. If a smaller version passes, Bush can say he had a plan that would have created more jobs, and blame Democrats if the economy does not rebound.
"If the economy doesn't look so good heading into '04, who better to blame than Democrats in the Senate?" said Dan Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation, who consulted with the administration on the economic package.
Democrats are fighting back with job-related events throughout the country during the two-week congressional recess. Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) said in a telephone interview that he expects Bush's campaign message next year to be similar to the one he used during the midterm elections, which was that Democrats had obstructed many of his plans. "He has the wind of national security at his back, and now he is going to ask people to trust him on the economy," Corzine said. "We're going to say: 'We passed a $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001. Why didn't that work?' "