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Bush Tax Proposal Under Fire Centrist Republicans Jeffords, Chafee Oppose Bush Plan

By Janet Hook

The first signs of trouble for President Bush’s tax cut measure have surfaced on Capitol Hill, as moderate Republican lawmakers have begun breaking ranks to oppose cutting taxes as deeply as Bush has proposed.

The two most prominent defectors are Sens. James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who argued that Bush’s plan to slash taxes by $1.6 trillion over 10 years is too skewed to the wealthy and would leave too little margin for error if projected budget surpluses do not become reality.

In a White House meeting Thursday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) cautioned Bush that he is now at least two votes short of being able to pass the tax cut plan in the Senate.

Before the meeting with Domenici and other GOP budget writers, Bush acknowledged that “I’ve got a lot of work to do” in selling the tax cut plan.

The fissures in GOP unity on the issue were hailed by Democrats, who sought Thursday to focus attention on their push for a smaller tax cut geared more to middle- and lower-income taxpayers.

“There is a real possibility we could actually win this fight,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said.

Still, some GOP leaders voiced confidence that moderate Republicans would fall in line and vote for Bush’s tax bill in the end -- just as they did in producing unanimous GOP support for the controversial nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general.

“This is not the beginning of a crack,” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. “When the time comes, there will be more than enough votes there.”

At the least, the early GOP defections are a sign that obtaining party unity on taxes is going to prove harder than on the Ashcroft vote.

In a Senate split 50-50 between the parties, losing support from just Jeffords and Chafee could cause trouble for Bush’s tax plan, given that so far only one Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, has announced his support for it.