WASHINGTON – Tailoring his message for an audience comprised of moderate Democrats, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt refused to call for repealing legislated tax cuts that some of his colleagues are suggesting as a means to revitalize the sluggish economy.
"It's my view that we shouldn't be reconsidering tax cuts in the middle of a recession," Gephardt told members of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Gephardt did criticize the 10-year $1.35 trillion tax cut package passed on the urging of President Bush last year, but said the issue is "off the table."
"I think we would be wise not to spend all of our time and energy this year debating an issue that we know will end in gridlock."
Some conservatives in the House actually want to offer a bill to repeal the president's tax cuts. Republicans, of course, would vote against it but use the vote as a way to smoke out Democrats and force them on the record. The GOP presumes Democrats ultimately would not vote to repeal the Bush tax cut, thereby undermining their argument that the tax cut has turned out to be bad policy.
In fact, some GOP leaders are now suggesting that Senate Democrats are responsible for the slow economic recovery because Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., refused to allow the president's economic stimulus plan come to a vote in the Senate.
"I don't know that you know that over a half a million people have lost their job during this process of Daschle holding on to this stimulus package. Over half a million people. That's amazing," said House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas.
The GOP House majority passed an economic stimulus plan last year that Gephardt and House Democrats voted against and was eventually stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Gephardt, a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2004, wants to win back control of the House in 2002, but Democrats need an issue to counter popularity polls for the president hovering around 80 percent and recent polling giving Republicans a slight edge over Democrats in the November election.
Urging Bush to convene a bipartisan summit at the White House to tackle economic issues, Gephardt, D-Mo., attempted to lay out his own priorities for improving economic growth, including energy independence; improving the educational system; creating a universal pension system that would "follow a worker" to whatever job he or she holds; and making use of new technology.
He also offered a series of tax breaks and incentives to speed up the development of "environmentally smart" energy sources that would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
"America should launch an 'Apollo Project' to develop environmentally smart, renewable energy solutions," he said, noting the United States now depends on foreign oil for 56 percent of its energy needs.
One tax credit of up to 30 percent would go to business investments in renewable energy generation. Another would go to business and consumer purchases of cars or trucks with fuel-saving technologies. Tax breaks would be given to increase energy efficiency in new buildings.
"The development of alternative energy has the potential to be America's largest growth market and job producer in the next 10 years," Gephardt said.
Proposing increased federal research funding for fuel cell research, Gephardt said the federal government should purchase hybrid cars for its own fleet.
Longer term, he said Congress should set a goal of "ultimately converting America's passenger transportation to fuel cell vehicles running on hydrogen, the ultimate 'green' energy resource, whose only byproduct is water."
In a slap at the Republicans, Gephardt said his overall approach "has not been endorsed by the other side."
He criticized a GOP-backed bill that cleared the House last year that proposed tax breaks aimed at largely "traditional energy interests," and included the "same old tired call" to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Earlier this week, Bush urged the Senate to pass the energy bill, saying environmentally friendly oil drilling techniques could make ANWR a viable alternative to foreign oil without damaging the environment.
In the area of education, Gephardt proposed making the first $10,000 of a student's education cost tax deductible and said parents should get a $500 tax credit for each child.
"With 4 million children born each year, it would be an investment worth making," he said.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.