The Republicans who confidently predicted they'd deliver President Bush his tax cut package as a Memorial Day present came up against dissatisfied Democrats forcing vote after vote on amendments Tuesday to delay final passage of the 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut.
Even as Bush urged that the stalling cease, Democrats took a last stand to underscore their unhappiness with the tax bill. They say it is too tilted toward the wealthy and would consume surplus dollars that could be better used for priorities such as education, debt reduction and Medicare prescription drugs.
"This is not about obstruction. This is not about delay," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "This is about making sure that the message is as clear as it can be about the choices that the American people must face."
The debates over the amendments lasted two days in a series of back-to-back votes that kept senators virtual prisoners in their ornate chamber and forced cancellation of committee meetings and other events. The votes were continuing into the evening Tuesday, with the timing of final passage up in the air. Republicans even planned to forego a major GOP fundraiser starring Bush on Tuesday night so they could remain on the floor to cast votes.
Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., had on Sunday boasted that he would get the bill passed in the Senate swiftly and with "overwhelming" bipartisan support, including the votes of 10 or more Democrats. A speedy passage looked less likely Tuesday afternoon as Dems stubbornly picked at the bill.
The skirmishes over the Democratic-backed votes didn't cause much question about eventual outcome of the battle, though. With the backing of a crucial group of Democratic moderates, Republicans had defeated more than two dozen amendments Monday and Tuesday. Some Republicans even saw a silver lining, insisting the delaying tactics would only serve to remind Americans that they are the party pushing hardest for tax cuts.
"The longer we have the Democrats dragging it out, the better for us," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
Democrats said it was they who have the political advantage, citing public opinion that ranks tax cuts below other issues such as the solvency of Medicare and Social Security.
"It's imperative that we speak out and stand up for what we know is in the best interests of all Americans," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. "And that is not this tax cut."
Lott predicted the coalition would hold and eventually pass the bill on a bipartisan basis, setting up talks with the House on a final version to send Bush. Lott conceded, however, that Congress may not meet the GOP goal of getting the tax cut on the president's desk by this holiday weekend, which begins a one-week congressional recess.
"Obviously, we want to get it done before Memorial Day, but we're going to get it done however long it takes because it is the right thing to do," said Lott.
Speaking with reporters at the White House, Bush called on lawmakers to "stop delaying and move forward," even as Vice President Cheney huddled in his Capitol hideaway with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas about reaching compromise on a final measure. Thomas also talked on the Senate floor with several Democratic and Republican moderates, whose support hinges on several tax bill components that differ from the House.
Thomas, R-Calif., insisted the House-Senate conference could still be wrapped up quickly if the Senate delays don't last too much longer. "We're going to be able to get it done in the time frame" of Memorial Day, he contended.
Both the House and Senate bills contain the core of Bush's original 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut: across-the-board income tax reductions, relief from the marriage penalty on many two-income couples, doubling of the $500 child tax credit and gradual repeal of the estate tax.
They differ in how quickly the tax cuts are phased in, mainly because the Senate bill had to offset the costs of including of tax breaks for education, such as a $5,000 college tuition deduction, and provisions for lower-income people, such as allowing them to claim a portion of the child credit for the first time.
The Senate also carves out a new 10 percent tax bracket for the first portion of every taxpayer's income, retroactive to Jan. 1, while the House creates an immediate 12 percent rate that eventually drops to 10 percent.
The main GOP author of the Senate bill, Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said House leaders have indicated to him that they are "receptive to more components" in the Senate measure with the knowledge that it was written to pass in a Senate divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.
"We're well on our way to having a bipartisan bill," Grassley said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.