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House Panel Passes Tax Cut 23-15 Vote Indicates Partisan Divide Facing Bush on Hill

By Janet Hook

House Republicans gave President Bush’s domestic agenda its first legislative victory Thursday, as the House Ways and Means Committee approved a cut in income tax rates that is the crown jewel of his economic and budget policy.

But in a likely portent of things to come for him on Capitol Hill, the committee action reflected an absence of the bipartisan spirit that Bush promised to build around his presidency.

The tax cut was approved on a strict party-line vote, 23-15. House Republicans rammed the bill through the committee on short notice and voted in lock step to crush a Democratic alternative that would have provided a smaller tax cut, more targeted to middle-income people.

“The president talks all the time about having a bipartisan relationship,” said House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo). “What the House Republicans are doing is against everything he has said we ought to be doing.”

Gephardt and other Democrats objected to the speedy action on the tax cut bill, arguing that lawmakers should not consider it until after they pass a budget agreement that balances reductions in taxes against other priorities.

Still, some Bush allies remain optimistic that some Democrats will come around to supporting the tax cut as it makes it way through Congress.

“It may look a little less bipartisan than it should today,” said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a Ways and Means member who is close to the Bush administration. “I’m still very hopeful that as the bill works its way through the process, it will become more bipartisan.”

Portman said he expected five to 10 Democrats to support the measure when it comes to a House vote next week. One Democrat Bush can count on is Rep. Ralph M. Hall (D-Texas) -- a conservative who was the only Democrat in Congress to endorse him for president. Hall’s spokeswoman said Thursday that he would vote for the tax cut bill.

As approved by the committee, the bill would reduce taxes by $958 billion over 10 years by cutting income tax rates across the board. It would go beyond Bush’s proposal by speeding up the cut in the lowest tax rate and applying the change to 2001 tax bills, a year earlier than Bush proposed.