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Death-tax showdown

To: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott

From: Jude Wanniski

Re: Congratulations on Cloture Petition!

Hurray for you, Trent! I heard from Karen Kerrigan of our Washington
office that you have grabbed the bull by the horns on the death tax and
filed a cloture petition on Friday. This means that unless you work out
a satisfactory process with the Senate Democrats, the House-passed
repeal of the gift and estate tax by 2010 will come to an up-or-down
vote soon after Congress returns on Monday. You’ve been awfully patient
with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and President Clinton, who
clearly threw a monkey wrench into your plans Monday a week ago, when
they announced they would swap their prescription drug plan for
your plans to fix the marriage tax penalty. I was encouraged to
see you say it was “silly” to be legislating in that fashion. This is
especially so when it has become clear to anyone paying attention that
the Democratic leadership never expected you to present a solid
prescription-drug plan for seniors. They wanted you to vote against the
Democratic plan and then go to the voters, beating up on you for being
stingy and callous.

We are finally seeing from Republicans the kind of smart
hardball we should have gotten when the voters turned the 104th Congress
over to the GOP in 1994. Newt Gingrich was a disaster when it came to
playing political chess with Bill Clinton and it has taken all this
while for Republicans to recover from their wounds. The unanimous vote
of House Republicans on H.R. 8, to repeal the death tax, was a
breathtaking turning point. Bill Clinton and Al Gore trotted out their
usual Robin Hood arguments, which usually frighten Republicans into
retreat, but I’m thrilled to see the party has closed ranks on this
issue and that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is also front and center,
showing no fear that voters will punish him or the GOP for removing the
55 percent tax on the assets of husband and wife when they die. On this
issue alone, if it is at the cutting edge, the GOP might just win both
the White House and the Congress for the first time since Ike was
elected in 1952 — and promptly announced that he really did not promise
to cut taxes!

What truly amazes me, Trent, is the deafening silence from the
national press corps — print and electronic media — on this turn of
events. The press corps has gotten so used to writing about the
victories of the Democrats over the feckless and divided Republicans
that there is mass confusion over this estate-tax issue. I hope you are
aware that your bold thrust in filing a cloture petition on Friday
did not make the New York Times — either the Saturday paper or
the Sunday week in review. Even more astounding to me, it did not
make the Dow Jones news wire or the Bloomberg wire and was not mentioned
in Monday’s Wall Street Journal
. If a tree falls in the forest with
nobody there, Trent, the sound will not be heard. But when you file a
cloture petition on a vote to end the death tax after 80 years on the
books — an action that gets the support of 80 percent of the people in
public opinion polls — it is incredible that both the political and the
financial press have disappeared on a coffee break.

On page one of Tuesday’s New York Times, here was a story, “Gore and
Bush Agree on Basics, But Differ Sharply on Details,” by Allison
Mitchell. Surely it would mention the difference on the death tax, with
the vote coming up next week, for goodness sakes. NOT A WORD, Trent. And
I’m sure that it was not Allison Mitchell’s fault. She doesn’t know
about it because she hasn’t read about it in her own newspaper or in any
other newspaper. Did we dream that it happened? No, we actually called
Bloomberg and got confirmation that you had filed for cloture, but the
fellow who checked, acknowledged they did not put it on their own wire.

If I were a political or financial reporter — as I was for almost 20
years — I would see that if the voters knew the vote was coming next
week, they would be more likely to urge their senators and Senate
candidates to vote for repeal. There are already enough votes to pass
the Senate, with the hapless Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio the only
Republican who refuses to cut tax rates of any kind. But to get a
veto-proof vote out of the Senate, you need the eight Democratic
co-sponsors to vote with you on cloture, or Senator Daschle will pile up
so many amendments that he would kill the bill with a faux
filibuster. Because President Clinton has threatened to veto, this is
the moment of truth. Something big will happen next week, and unless he
is careful, both Vice President Gore and Clinton’s wife Hillary, the
Democratic Senate nominee in New York, will find themselves on the wrong
side of a popular issue. Yes, they will insist Gore’s plan to increase
the exemption on family farms and small businesses to $5 million, but
the country is saying it wants repeal, not the confiscation of
family assets at any level, and that George W. Bush is confident of

Because the press corps is making believe none of this is going on,
Trent, I think you really should offer yourself to the talk shows next
Sunday to alert the nation that a big week is coming up. Yes, you will
win either way, getting the legislation or, if it fails, keeping the
issue for November. But having played it straight on prescription drugs
for the seniors while the Democrats played games, you should go all out
next week, even if in the end you force the president to sign the repeal
and he and Al Gore take credit for having invented the idea. The country
will know better anyway.