Well, it looks like Bill Clinton took the Republican congressional leadership to the cleaners, again.

Sure, there was lots of bi-partisan backslapping going on last week over the budget deal. But while Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott were boasting about how they passed the first significant tax cuts since the Reagan years, the administration was secretly planning to use its new line-item veto power to, you guessed it, kill some of those very tax cuts.

Many are asking, “When are the Republicans going to wake up and realize they are not dealing with an honorable man in Bill Clinton? When are they going to start acting on principle? When are they going to use the power they have with majorities in both houses to push their own agenda, rather than to seek compromise with a politician who always bests them?”

Those would be good questions if, indeed, the Republican leadership actually had principles and core beliefs. But do they?

If the budget deal they cut is any indication of their values, the answer is a resounding no. New “entitlement” programs, like the one to provide federal health insurance for children, were created by it. Folks who are not paying income taxes somehow get income tax cuts, which simply means a clever new means of redistributing income was devised in this plan. And the budget increased federal spending for education, the arts and other programs in which the federal government has no business being involved.

Even more interesting, perhaps, are some of the very “tax cuts” — more accurately called “loopholes” — Clinton is eyeing for possible veto.

For example, won’t Clinton score political points should he decide to veto a provision of the budget bill that sets a lower tax rate on the sale of hard cider in New England states? The new rate is less than half of what is required for beer, its major competitor. Is that fair?

And how can the Republican-controlled Congress defend the provision that eliminates the gas tax for owners of multiple stations when they sell to local governments? Doesn’t that put owners of single stations at a distinct disadvantage?

And get this little bit of Republican pork Clinton is considering zeroing out: Another provision of the budget package allows county officials in Lott’s home state of Mississippi to deduct more expenses. Would you call that a tax cut or a political payoff?

No wonder Clinton’s poll numbers are so high with opponents like this.

Gingrich was gnashing his teeth this weekend over the possibility that Clinton might exercise his veto authority on some or all of these provisions and others like them in the legislation.

“Since it didn’t come up (in the negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders), and we weren’t warned about it, I think it would violate the spirit (of the agreement),” whined the speaker.

But not only should Gingrich and Lott have seen this one coming a mile away, those kinds of special-interest provisions should never have been included in the bill in the first place. After all, wasn’t it the Republican Party that pledged to simplify the tax code? Wasn’t it the Republican Party that claimed it was for across-the-board tax relief? Wasn’t it the GOP that was going to end social engineering by the federal government? Weren’t these guys supposed to be the revolutionaries who were fundamentally going to change the way the government operated?

The Republicans have provided Bill Clinton with what will be for him a rare opportunity — he can actually win politically by doing the right thing. My guess is he’ll hit this pitch out of the ballpark. He’ll expose the hypocrisy of the Republicans by claiming — falsely, of course — that he is actually acting on principle.

No wonder Americans are so confused. No wonder they’re turning off to politics altogether. No wonder they’re asking themselves if it really makes any difference who they vote for.

Those who put their faith in politicians — of any stripe — should learn from this experience. America’s two-party system has become a fraud. Sure, take your choice between the Demo-rats and the Republi-cons. Some choice. Like the choice between corrupt and stupid.

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