Dean Slams Foes on Tax Vote

Posted March 21, 2003 at 6:46pm

Opening themselves to a left-flank attack, the four would-be presidents in the Senate’s Democratic Caucus stuck with leadership Friday and supported a $350 billion tax cut.

Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) all argued that the Democratic alternative, crafted by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), wasn’t ideal but was much better than the $726 billion White House proposal.

“It’s an improvement over where we are,” Edwards said after the vote, which failed 38-62.

That logic was overwhelmingly supported in the 49-member Democratic caucus, where passing the $350 billion-alternative would have been cheered as a dramatic blow against the crown jewel of President Bush’s economic plan. But in casting their votes and arguing that a scaled-back tax cut was superior to Bush’s more dramatic plan, the Senators walked right into the wheelhouse of former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), who has made taking his Congressional counterparts to task for not standing up to the President a staple of his underdog presidential campaign.

“This is exactly what’s wrong with the Democratic Party,” Dean said in a telephone interview Friday. “At some point you’ve got to just say ‘No.’ Bush Lite doesn’t cut it.”

Attacking Congressional Democrats — on their support of the Iraq resolution last fall, their support of Bush’s education reforms, and support from some of them for Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001 — has become a standard line in Dean’s stump speeches, and he’s winning ovations from his audiences. Even before last week’s budget debates, Dean criticized Democratic leaders for even offering alternative plans to Bush’s tax cuts, arguing that any tax-cut proposal by Democrats would set a bargaining chip in place that ensured a bonanza worth hundreds of billions of dollars for the wealthiest Americans.

“Why make it easier for the Republicans?” he asked rhetorically Friday.

As his attacks have grown sharper, and his standing in polls has grown along with his ovations at multi-candidate events, Dean has grown increasingly irritating to his competitors.

Kerry said Friday that his own stimulus plan, anchored around a payroll tax holiday, was preferable to the Breaux plan, but that something needed to be done to block the $726 billion Bush plan. Even as a poll in their mutual backyard of New Hampshire showed Kerry leading the former Vermont Governor by only a whisker, he essentially dismissed Dean as an outsider who would criticize every vote in the search for perfection without ever offering up his own ideas.

“I support an intelligent stimulus plan. He has no plan,” Kerry said of Dean.

Graham, a late entrant into the presidential debate, agreed that sticking to the principled stand of no tax cuts — he called it “reckless to be cutting taxes as we go to war” — would only result in a worse plan. “You’re not dealing with perfection,” he said, calling Bush’s plan “totally indefensible.”

What made the votes of the four presidential contenders even more intriguing was their to decision to stick with Breaux, as well as Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), when they had a free pass to vote against the $350 billion plan.

Breaux told reporters before the vote that he had secured all but two Democratic votes. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) supports the Bush plan and wouldn’t vote for anything diluting it, while Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) didn’t want to back any tax cuts whatsoever. If he could have convinced Hollings to back him, Breaux said he could have gotten three Republicans to support his plan and knock the tax cut down to $350 billion.

“We needed Hollings and we didn’t get him,” Breaux said. Knowing the Breaux plan wouldn’t pass, 10 Democrats, including Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), as well as Independent Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), voted against Breaux in the end. Before the vote, Breaux said he wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the presidential contenders also voted against him to protect against their left flanks, particularly since the measure wasn’t going to pass anyway.

But Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and Graham stuck with Breaux.

Graham said that he has supported amendments that would have completely gutted the tax cut, and that in the process of campaigning voters would get a clear picture of his entire record, not just one vote. Still, he said he was ready for any attack on his record.

“In this business, they don’t give you a mask and a chemical suit that can protect you,” he said.

Friday’s tax votes were illustrative of the types of political potholes Members of Congress can run into while campaigning for the presidency, where a vote can be cheered inside the chamber as the right tactical maneuver while at the same time end up being portrayed as a sign of weakness or indecision on the trail.

In the last 13 presidential campaigns, the party out of power has nominated a sitting Member of Congress just four times, with John Kennedy’s election in 1960 the only victorious campaign from the Senate. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the Senate Majority Leader at the time he secured the nomination, quit the chamber five months before Election Day. The other two, then-Sens. George McGovern (D-S.D.) in 1972 and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in 1964, were routed.

Dean acknowledged that in his years in the Vermont legislature he was guilty of casting some votes that were designed more toward “trying to get the best deal” rather than his own principles. “That’s always a problem legislators have,” he said.

But he contended that at this point, with Bush and Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House, Democrats needed to start delivering a message of confrontation toward Bush to show what the party’s principles are.

“I think it’s time to take a few overly principled stands. That’s why we’re not winning elections,” he said.

Edwards, however, said the issue wasn’t about Dean’s allegation of a principle deficit, but ideas. Dean’s program focuses on incentives to businesses to provide universal health-care, most prominently. Edwards’ plan focuses first on an energy tax credit to middle and lower-income families, as well unemployment benefit extensions and aid to states.

Edwards contrasted his program with Bush’s as one that gives breaks to “people who really need them,” something that will resonate on the campaign trail. Dean’s attacks, however, won’t, for now, warrant a detailed reply for Edwards.

“Governor Dean can speak for himself,” he said tersely.Rep. Karen McCarthy, a five-term Democratic lawmaker from Missouri, will begin receiving treatment for alcoholism following a public incident in which she fell in the Rayburn House Office Building while inebriated late Thursday night.

McCarthy missed a key vote on the budget resolution, which the GOP passed by only three votes, after being hospitalized to treat injuries she suffered during the fall.

The 56-year-old McCarthy released a statement late Friday afternoon acknowledging her alcohol problem and vowing to get help for it.

“I deeply regret my behavior and, as difficult as it is, recognize that my drinking has hurt those who I love and work with. I have hit bottom and I realize I must take action to change.”

McCarthy added: “I am taking the initiative and will confront this disease, and like so many before me, I will win this battle. I will begin immediate treatment, and I ask for the support and prayers of everyone as I begin my recovery. I am truly sorry and apologize to those who I have hurt, and I will do everything I can to regain their trust.”

McCarthy’s office declined to release any further details about her plans.

Sources familiar with Thursday’s incident said McCarthy began drinking around 6 p.m. in the Lindy Boggs Room, a lounge for female lawmakers located in the Capitol, near the offices of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

McCarthy made a 10:30 p.m. vote for the Democratic budget alternative, although sources describe her as having difficulty speaking and walking on her own. On her way back to her Longworth office, McCarthy was seen acting in a strange manner and yelling at passersby.

McCarthy got back to her office in Longworth, but decided around midnight to go home, prior to the vote on final passage of the budget resolution.

As she was leaving Capitol Hill, McCarthy fell head-first down an escalator and sustained serious cuts on her face.

Capitol Police officers and officials from the Office of the Attending Physician were called in to help treat McCarthy, who was described as “belligerent” when help arrived.

McCarthy was taken by police escort to George Washington University Hospital and released several hours later. She required multiple stitches on her face.

“I can tell you that the Congresswoman had fallen and was transported to the hospital” by police around 12:30 a.m., said Capitol Police spokeswoman Jessica Gissubel. Gissubel was unable to provide any further details.

But people familiar with the matter said the Congresswoman’s drinking habits have been a concern for quite some time.

McCarthy, who is divorced, spent 18 years in the state Legislature before being elected in 1994. She is a member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.