Washington Republicans scored a triumph for President Bush on Wednesday by shoving a final 2002 budget through the House, paving the way for the deep tax cuts and slowed spending that form the core of his economic agenda.
The near party-line 221-207 roll call shifted the spotlight to the Senate, which planned to vote final passage on Thursday. A victory in that chamber, divided evenly between the Republicans and Democrats, was all but assured as members of both parties conceded that several centrist Democratic senators would provide the critical support needed for passage.
Just six of 210 House Democrats supported the $1.95 trillion spending plan, but that was enough for Bush to claim a bipartisan victory. Three Republicans also defected.
"Today's bipartisan budget vote in the House is a victory for fairness and the American people," the president said in a written statement. He said the budget "will return money to the taxpayers and provide reasonable spending increases."
The budget's crown jewel is its call for $1.35 trillion in tax cuts over the next 11 years. That is less than the $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax reduction that has long been Bush's hallmark, but still one of the biggest tax reductions ever.
The measure would hold spending for many programs to a 4 percent increase in 2002, half their growth this year. Boosts are planned for education, defense, and biomedical research, along with the possible creation of new prescription drug coverage. But other unspecified programs will face smaller increases or cuts.
The budget would also shrink the publicly held national debt by $2.4 trillion, which Republicans say is the maximum feasible reduction. Democrats say more can be achieved but for the GOP's drive to save money for the tax cut.
The budget is a guideline aimed at assisting lawmakers' fiscal plans and does not require Bush's signature. Specific tax and spending decisions will be made in later bills.
Democrats complained that the package carried a bloated tax cut that would disproportionately benefit the rich while soaking up money needed for schools, debt reduction and other domestic priorities.
"This is the people's House," chided Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "It isn't the special interests' House, it isn't the billionaires' House, it isn't the oil companies' House."
Republicans said that with $5.6 trillion in budget surpluses projected over the coming decade, it is time for tax cuts and time to rebuff Democrats' spending demands.
"This isn't a county sale barn where we're bidding on a prize heifer," said House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa. "Spending more on education isn't the only thing we need to do."
The House vote, which kept Bush's political momentum on fiscal issues alive, underlined the GOP's desire to deliver a crucial victory to the president just four months into his term.
Perhaps more importantly, it moved lawmakers closer to giving Bush a huge advantage in winning his cherished tax reductions.
The budget's final passage will mean that Senate Republicans will need just 50 Senate votes plus a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Dick Cheney to pass their big tax bill. Without the budget's protection, Democrats could kill the tax measure by filibuster, delays that take 60 votes to halt.
The House has already passed most of its tax bills for the year.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he intends to release a bipartisan tax cut bill Friday, if agreement can be reached with at least four of the 10 committee Democrats and most Republicans.
To fit Bush's tax proposals into the smaller $1.35 trillion figure, Grassley could delay the full income tax reductions beyond 2006; reduce the top 39.6 percent rate to more than the 33 percent Bush wants; and seek a smaller reduction in the tax marriage penalty paid by millions of two-income couples.
After a week of bargaining, Republicans were counting on winning at least some of the 14 centrist Senate Democrats who voted for a similar version of the budget last month. Their votes were pivotal because moderate GOP Sens. James Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island were considered unlikely to vote yes.
"There will be differences" among moderate Senate Democrats on how they vote, conceded Sen. John Breaux, D-La., a leader of the centrists.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., predicted, "To the best of my knowledge, the budget resolution will be out of our hair tomorrow."
Democrats mocked as unrealistically low the budget's plan for 4 percent growth for all federal programs but automatically paid benefits like Medicare. Those programs would grow from $635 billion this year to $661 billion in 2002, the same amount Bush requested.
Republicans said they meant business.
"We are serious about our efforts to hold down spending," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. "This is not something that is whimsical here."