Prudent Priority: Shrink That Deficit : House Republicans confront that reality

There's a crack in the House of Newt. House Republicans are breaking ranks over the proposed middle-class tax cuts. Nearly half of the Republicans in the lower chamber now oppose the party's proposed tax break for households with annual incomes of six figures. Smart move.

The unexpected fissure in the GOP party line is illuminating. The nation's priority should be deficit reduction, not politically pandering tax cuts. Poll after poll shows that Americans understand what's at stake. A methodical campaign to reduce the deficit and grow the economy would help to stabilize interest rates and reduce borrowing costs for government, businesses and consumers. That, in the long run, would pay off far more handsomely than tax cuts.

Now 102 House Republicans appear to be aligning themselves with House and Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans who want to keep the budget focus on deficit reduction. In a letter to the House Rules Committee, the Republicans urged that the proposed middle-class tax cut be limited to a $500 credit for each child under 18 years old for families making $95,000 a year or less, instead of the present proposed ceiling of $200,000, which if permitted to stand would cost the federal government almost $105 billion over five years. That would account for most of the total $189 billion in individual and corporate tax cuts proposed by House Republicans.

The wise band of worried Republicans wrote to the committee in order to amend the tax cut before the full House votes on the measure next month. The House leadership has said there will be no floor amendments. If the Republican tax credit is limited to households of $95,000 or less, that would significantly narrow the difference between it and President Clinton's $500 tax credit, limited to families with household incomes of $75,000 or less.

In pushing for the change, the 102 House Republicans who endorsed the letter explicitly agreed that deficit cutting, not tax relief, was the national priority. Indeed, a new Times poll has shown that while Americans give qualified approval to the new Republican Congress, 59% say that it is unrealistic to consider cutting federal taxes at all right now. Only 35% of those polled were gung ho for cuts. Indeed, when asked what should be the most important priority for government, 40% cited deficit reduction, 26% said expansion of domestic programs and just 20% wanted taxes to be cut.

Common sense dictates that deficit reduction would do more for everyone's pocketbook than a tax cut. That's getting to be a bipartisan message these days.

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