ONTARIO, Calif. – Firing back in an election-year debate over the recession, President Bush on Saturday painted Democratic opponents as tax-raisers and pointedly vowed he won’t allow his tax cuts to be rolled back.
“Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes,” he shouted to California workers.
He called for bipartisan unity, but deflected talk of compromise on an economic stimulus package, blaming the Democrats for blocking it.
With unemployment at a six-year high of 5.8 percent last month, Bush told a packed high school gym in Portland, Ore.: “If you’re unemployed, it’s 100 percent, and I’m worried about that.”
Bush urged “unanimity and clarity of purpose and resolve” in confronting the recession, just as the nation had demonstrated in backing the war on terrorism. He made taxes the centerpiece of his California and Oregon swing, with rhetoric that was reminiscent of his tax-cut campaign last year, and of his father’s “read my lips” pledge.
Congress left for a recess last month deadlocked over how to stimulate the economy. Bush proposed a blend of corporate tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits; Democrats wanted more for health benefits for the unemployed.
“This economic debate is troubling me,” Bush told more than 5,000 small business owners, members of the military and political supporters at a town-hall gathering east of Los Angeles. “I stand here as a proud party man, but let me tell you something, the country is far more important.”
One day after Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle fired the opening salvo on the economy in Washington, D.C., Bush headed to the West Coast to respond. He stopped first at this GOP stronghold in California, his third visit in a year to the most populous state. Bush lost California by more than 1 million votes in the 2000 election, but narrowly carried San Bernardino County.
Daschle blamed Bush’s tax cuts Friday for wiping out budget surpluses, but stopped short of calling for a rollback of Bush’s 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax reductions that passed last year.
Nonetheless, Bush predicted unnamed political opponents will try to reverse the tax cuts. Some Democrats have called for a suspension of cuts in the top income-tax bracket to pay for other priorities.
“That’s a tax raise,” he said. “I challenge their economics when they say raising taxes will help the country recover. Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes!” The declaration invited comparison to his father’s famous 1988 promise: “Read my lips – no new taxes.”
“The worst thing you can do is raise taxes in a recession, and yet some in Washington, D.C., are talking about getting rid of the tax cuts,” Bush said. “I can’t think of anything worse for growing our economy. The answer to those who want to raise taxes is no, you’re not going to raise taxes.”
Later, Bush toured a job center in Oregon, the state that last fall became the first to declare itself in a recession, and in November had the nation’s worst jobless rate – 7.4 percent. Oregon has been hard-hit by layoffs in the high-tech and manufacturing sectors.
Asked at the center about reopening negotiations with Senate Democrats to craft a new stimulus plan, Bush gave no indication he planned to. “I want to remind everybody we could have gotten the bill last session if there was the will to get something done,” he said.
Indeed, despite his own sharp words for Democrats, Bush said bipartisanship should rule the day, particularly in the economic debate.
Bush is focusing more heavily in coming days on the sour economy. The nation lost more jobs last year than in any other in the past two decades, though Bush went out of his way Saturday to say he had inherited the bad economy. When he returns Monday from his vacation, his first order of business will be to meet with his economic advisers and with Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.
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