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Voinovich Makes Budget Stance Clear

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) is laying down his marker for this year’s debate on the federal budget and tax cuts, and wants to make sure his position is clearly understood.

To reinforce the point, he’s already begun informal talks with Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) on including strict budget enforcement measures in this year’s budget resolution and has put the White House on notice that he won’t support any effort this year to make President Bush’s tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 permanent.

“I said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Voinovich said last Wednesday of a recent conversation he had with the White House about the tax cuts. “There’s too many things that are uncertain right now, like, what’s that war going to cost?”

With the costs of Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program on the rise, the potential for a $2 trillion transition cost to create private accounts under Social Security, and the uncertainty of the costs of the U.S. military’s continuing occupation of Iraq, Voinovich said enacting more tax cuts would be irresponsible.

Indeed, Voinovich also told the White House that he wouldn’t be alone in his opposition to adding to the already record-breaking budget deficit by extending the president’s tax cuts indefinitely.

“I made it very clear that I wouldn’t be around, and they may very well need to bring in the vice president,” said Voinovich of the possibility that at least four other centrist Republicans would join him in opposition to the tax cuts and force Vice President Cheney to break a potential 50-50 Senate tie on the issue as he did in 2003. “If people want to make them permanent this time, then find an offset.”

At least two other Republicans, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), have already made it known that they too support Voinovich’s position on making the tax cuts permanent.

It’s not an unusual position for Voinovich, who along with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), forced Congress to pare down the president’s $726 billion tax cut in 2003 to a $350 billion package. It was a position that caused the Bush administration to target him back home in Ohio, by sending Treasury Secretary John Snow and then-Commerce Secretary Don Evans to the state in an attempt to build public pressure on Voinovich to support the larger tax cuts.

“I worked hard for a budget in 2003,” said Voinovich. “If we didn’t have the budget enforcement mechanisms [that year], we would have continued to spend money like drunken sailors around here.”

Voinovich was dismayed by Congress’ inability in 2004 to reach a budget agreement, and wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year. But that doesn’t mean he’ll go along with any budget agreement passed by the House and Senate.

In addition to meeting with Gregg, Voinovich has joined with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in reintroducing a bill designed to force Congress to pay for programs and tax cuts upfront by cutting spending elsewhere, rather than increasing the ballooning budget deficit, a proposal known as PAYGO.

Last year, Voinovich was among a handful of centrist Republicans to support a Feingold amendment to reinstitute PAYGO, which many lawmakers credit with helping to create the large government surpluses of the late 1990s.

But he was not among the four GOP centrists who scuttled Congress’ ability to pass a budget resolution last year. Snowe, McCain, Chafee and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), demanded that the House agree to institute PAYGO for both spending and tax cuts, a demand House Republicans were unwilling to meet.

Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn said while Voinovich supported the principle behind the four centrists’ position, “not having a budget at all was in his mind a marginally worse evil.” It is unclear if his position will be the same this year.

Voinovich is also calling for any tax cut extensions that may be included in a budget reconciliation measure to be offset.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has already indicated that he wants to find offsets for extending a number of business tax breaks and the cost of reauthorizing the 1996 Welfare to Work bill, but he has not committed to definitely moving those measures under budget reconciliation rules, which protect them from filibuster. It’s also unclear whether Grassley will want to offset the cost of making sure 12 million moderate-income taxpayers do not pay higher taxes because of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Voinovich said he was disappointed that the White House did not include the costs of an AMT fix in its budget, charging that they were counting on the revenue generated from the AMT to pay for expansions of other policy priorities. “The president is not going to deal with AMT,” said Voinovich. “The question is, is Congress going to be willing to let AMT go?”

Because the answer to that question is a likely “no,” Voinovich would like Grassley to offset the costs of an AMT fix, which could cost $500 billion over 10 years, according to some reports.

Still, Voinovich is optimistic that the Senate will come up with something he can support.

“My feeling is, if they handle this responsibly, we’ll have a budget,” Voinovich said.

This year could be very different than 2003 and 2004, since conservative GOP leaders in the Senate appear to be bringing GOP centrists into budget discussions earlier to avoid the kind of showdowns of the last couple of years.

Despite his reputation as a deficit hawk, Voinovich also may run afoul of the Bush administration because of his opposition to cuts proposed in its 2006 budget that would simply shift the burden to the states.

Citing cuts to the Community Development Block Grant and Medicaid in Bush’s budget unveiled last week, Voinovich said, “Members of Congress need to understand that these programs are appropriate for the federal government to do and that they are effective.”

He added, “I think that many of us who are familiar with the programs need to say we’ve got to be fair.”

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