Gephardt Sounds Republican Theme on Economy

Democratic and Republican pollsters and strategists agree that voters are anxious about the economy, but not yet angry at one person or political party.

That receptiveness was the opportunity for House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to gain an advantage on the topic during an economic policy speech Tuesday.

Gephardt, who opposed the Bush tax cut when the economy was in recession, said he's ready to vote for a tax cut now that the economy isn't.

"I support short-term tax cuts of 75 billion [dollars] to help working families and encourage company investment in the near term," he told the Economic Policy Institute, which prefers spending over tax cuts to stimulate the economy.

"I believe this could be the foundation of a new economic agenda for the House, an economic strategy devoted to restoring growth and jobs to our economy," Gephardt said.

White House reaction to the speech was subdued.

"Well, the congressman gave an interesting speech today," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill told Fox News that Gephardt's tax cut proposal took him completely by surprise.

"It's the first time I've heard it. I guess I'm still a little stunned that the congressman has come around to tax cuts. That comes as a surprise, I must say."

Fleischer said that before Congress takes up any new approaches to economic growth, the White House wants actions on bills it has long said would do just that. They point specifically to bills on homeland security, a national energy strategy, pension reform, and terrorism insurance.

"There is a lot pending before the Congress right now [the president] hopes they get to," Fleischer said.

A senior White House official who asked not to be named was more open-minded.

"Now, we're always open to putting more money in people's pockets," the official told Fox News. 

Top aides say Gephardt's strong support for war with Iraq gives him the leverage to bash Bush on the economy, especially on the White House refusal to call Democrats in to write a new economic plan

"The president should not ask for bipartisanship on Iraq and then turn his back on bipartisan efforts to promote jobs and economic growth," Gephardt said. 

Democrats have assumed voters would be with them when they focused on the economy, but in a memo sent this week to Republicans nationwide, GOP pollster Matthew Dowd argued otherwise.

"The public's desire, in spite of the Democrats' best efforts to the contrary, is to not to fix political blame for the economy. They continue to look for positive solutions for job creation and economic growth," the memo reads.

Gephardt did propose other methods in his five-point plan for economic growth, including $25 billion in spending for school construction, $25 billion to help state and local communities protect key facilities from terrorism and $75 billion for health care to aid those who have lost jobs keep health insurance. That money would also go to increasing the federal contribution to Medicaid.

"In the short term, let us do what many economists have suggested and prime the pump so more money goes into the economy," he said at a briefing sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

Reaction was quick from House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

"Gephardt's plan is nothing more than the discredited Democrat tax-and-spend scheme concealed behind a fresh Beverly Hills facelift," DeLay said.

"In its simplicity and wrong-headedness, it's nothing short of Mondale-esque," DeLay said in reference to the former vice president and failed Democratic presidential candidate.

Gephardt aides concede that the Democrats will have to best Republicans in offering an economic solution. But the minority leader must also fill the policy void Democrats have left on the economy, and has done so with a Republican-sounding promise to cut taxes if Democrats regain control of the House.

One problem does present itself with Gephardt's tax cut plan: The Democratic leader of the Senate declined to endorse it.

"These are all ideas that deserve a fair hearing, and we should have a real discussion about these and other ideas to help our economy in the short term. But we also need to focus on the long term," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said.

Daschle, as well as Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina -- all potential 2004 presidential candidates -- also plan talks on the economy in the coming days.

Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.