WASHINGTON – Despite a drumbeat from mostly Democratic quarters decrying additional tax cuts as reckless, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach (search) has made it his business to embrace them, and he thinks the voters in his district will too.
"I think the tax cuts were absolutely the right thing to do, and I think things are headed in the right direction," he told Foxnews.com, pointing to recent economic figures showing a surge of new jobs across the country.
"In April, 288,000 jobs were created, and 800,000 this year … I think the tax cuts of 2003 have played a big role in that economic turnaround."
Gerlach, who won a tough race in 2002 for this radically redistricted seat, said he has been pursuing tax issues this year mostly to make the tax code (search) more fair.
This month, for example, he helped move a House bill that would raise the exemption rates for the alternative minimum tax. This federal tax was passed in 1969 to prevent Americans in wealthier income brackets from using loopholes in order to pay fewer taxes, but has since reached into the middle class. The House passed the measure on a 333-89 vote.
Meanwhile, Gerlach introduced and shepherded through a bill that would make permanent the marriage penalty tax cut that is set to expire in 2005. The bill passed the House by a majority bipartisan vote last month, 323-95.
The measure would eliminate the additional taxes paid by married joint filers who without Gerlach’s bill would continue to pay more in taxes than two individual filers with the same income bracket.
"It’s a fairness question," he said.
But not everyone believes that tax cuts can fix the economy, and some blame tax cuts for hurling the federal government into unprecedented deficits. These critics say they see Gerlach as an agent of fiscal negligence. According to tax policy watchers on Capitol Hill, this attitude extends to the Senate, where the marriage penalty bill is expected to face a more difficult road to passage.
"I think there is a pretty substantial difference between me and Jim Gerlach on that issue," said Democrat Lois Murphy (search), who is challenging Gerlach for the 6th District slot in November. She said she would start her tenure in office by making sure the Bush tax cuts aren’t made permanent.
The tax cuts disproportionately benefit the wealthy "with massive tax breaks to corporate interests," said Murphy, who served as an attorney overseeing federal contracts for the U.S. Justice Department from 1989 to 1990. Now a partner in private practice, Murphy has also worked in non-profits, including NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"I do believe in policies that benefit the middle class and targeted to economic development in our communities, but not the policies that have led us to these record deficits," she said.
Dorothy Schieber (search), the Green Party candidate in the 6th District, said taxpayers aren’t buying the pro-tax cut line of the Republicans, especially when not everyone is feeling the reported recovery. "These tax cuts are really taking away revenue dollars," she said.
Despite the opposition, Gerlach’s supporters say he is ready to face the challenge in this competitive district, which runs the gamut of wealthy and middle class Philadelphian suburbs northwest of the city out to the more rural farmlands of the state. The current 6th District used to be represented by four different congressmen.
"He’s already seen as a major player on the (tax) issue," and "a legislator’s legislator," said fellow Pennsylvanian, Republican Rep. Phil English.
"It would really be hard seeing him lose that seat," English said. He called Gerlach a "real rising star," who has worked the bipartisan angle to help pass the Medicare Reform Act last year.
Though he beat Democrat Dan Wofford by only 51 percent to 49 percent in 2002, the district has become decidedly more Republican since redistricting.
"I think the Jim Gerlach I know will continue to solidify that seat and be there for some time," said Rep. Jim Peterson, R-Pa., who worked with Gerlach in the state Senate and credits him with crafting the state’s welfare reform plan.
Don Morabito, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said the Democrats are hardly going to let the opportunity to challenge Gerlach pass. In fact, he’s one of their most targeted Republicans in the state, Morabito said.
"To my knowledge, he hasn’t done anything," he said. "He hasn’t a record we need to be concerned about."
But Murphy said that since 2002, 3,072 Democrats have registered in the district compared to 2,500 new Republicans. "It’s very much a swing district," she said, adding that Pennsylvania is also a swing state in the presidential race.
Vice President Al Gore beat George Bush in the 6th district four years ago.
So far, said Rothenberg Political Report analyst Nathan Gonzales, Gerlach still has the upper hand. "The question mark is what kind of candidate Lois Murphy will be."
Gerlach said he has worked hard to reach out to this diverse district in the last two years and plans to run a tough campaign. "I think it is a competitive district for both parties," he said. "As a result you take every campaign very seriously."