WASHINGTON – Treasury Secretary John Snow, promoting the administration's tax plan ahead of Monday's Senate debate, called it the right fix for "a soggy economy."
"Hogwash," countered Senate Democrats, who say any benefits from the tax cuts will not help most people.
The debate played out on the Sunday talk shows while President Bush got ready to hit the road this week to campaign in three states for the proposal.
"A soggy economy is what we've got today. We're in a recovery but it's not as strong and robust as it should be," Snow said on ABC's This Week. "That's why the president's pushing this jobs and growth plan."
Democrats worried that more tax cuts would send the federal government further into debt. The Bush plan, they said, would aid the rich but fail to "trickle down" to low- and middle-class Americans.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said plans to revive the economy needed to go another way. "I think this whole 'trickle-down' is hogwash," she said. "We in the Senate, Democrats and some Republicans, are going to do what we can to get him to adjust his direction."
The Senate on Monday was to begin debate on a GOP-backed $350 billion tax cut proposal, which is less than half of what Bush had sought. Several Republicans see that bill as a starting point, although many Democrats support no more than $150 billion in tax relief.
Snow's appearances were part of the administration's effort to promote Bush's plan and win congressional approval.
Bush planned to meet with small-business owners in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday, before heading to Omaha, Neb., to spend time at the Airlite Plastics plant.
On Tuesday, he will talk to senior citizens in Indianapolis and give another speech on his economic-stimulus plan.
The GOP-run House on Friday approved a $550 billion version of the bill that would trim levies on wages, capital gains and some business investments. It would give Bush a smaller reduction than he wanted on corporate dividend taxes.
"I hope it's closer to $550 billion than $350 billion," Snow told NBC's Meet the Press. "Wherever we come out, I think we are going to have major tax relief for American taxpayers and tax relief that we will create jobs."
Any more tax cuts, or an increase in spending, would likely put the U.S. government deeper into debt, which is at about $6.4 trillion -- an average of $70,000 per family. By current law, the debt cannot exceed $6.4 trillion, so Congress must vote to raise it.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said lawmakers had no choice but to do so, but hoped Congress would vote on that measure before tackling tax cuts.
"So there's no doubt that deficit and debts are matters, are functions of the economy, are matters of fiscal policy that have to be dealt with," said Daschle, D-S.D. "This administration's ignored them from the beginning."
The soaring debt was the result of a years of spending increases and past tax cuts, Snow said.
But the Treasury chief called the deficit more manageable than in previous years, and understandable given job losses and an economy performing "far short of its potential." Meanwhile, deficits and debt rising during a good economy, such as during the mid-1990s, are more troublesome.
He said consumer spending has been "pretty good" and low interest rates were helpful, but business spending has been hampered by the decline of the stock market, corporate accounting scandals, and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"But most importantly, we need to get the business sector spending, and small business," Snow said on Fox News Sunday.
The Senate bill includes $20 billion in aid for state and local governments, many of which are raising taxes and facing massive budget cuts. While the Bush proposal does not include direct aid for the states, Snow said they would still benefit.
The Bush plan is not a "real stimulus plan," said Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. He has proposed increasing his state's income tax and legalizing slot machines at racetracks to finance reductions in local property taxes and increased school subsidies.
"We need to stimulate our economy, pump money into creating new roads, new railroads, fixing up our airports," he said. "Those things create jobs, do good, and help American business."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, said federal tax cuts would help a city with a projected $3.8 billion budget deficit. State and city lawmakers have approved a wide array of measures to close the gap, including an increase in the sales tax and water rates.
"But if the federal government reduces taxes, then that will ease the burden on states and cities who are being forced to raise their taxes simply because they have services that they are either unwilling or unable to cut," he said.