President Bush, carrying out a vow he has repeated virtually every day for several weeks, vetoed Democratic tax-cut legislation passed by both houses of Congress late Friday, complaining that it would raise taxes for wealthy Americans and "stifle growth."
Bush signed his veto message even before Congress gave final approval to the bill, which contained a tax credit for most Americans, a capital gains tax cut and other reductions financed by a higher top income tax rate and a special "millionaires' surtax.""The conference (committee) report tells me all I need to know," the president said in a speech delivered in the White House East Room barely 10 minutes after the Senate completed work on the measure.
"Congress could not resist their natural impulse to raise taxes," Bush said. "When the bill is sent down tonight, this signed message will be waiting for it . . . the minute the bill arrives."
Launching a major election-year attack on Congress that is expected to signal his theme for the remainder of the 1992 campaign, Bush also ordered a 45-day freeze on spending for 68 federal programs for which Congress appropriated funds last year.
The affected programs range from traditional public works "pork-barrel" projects to specific grants that Bush contended were patently ridiculous. If Congress grants Bush's request to make the funding freeze permanent, the move would save an estimated $3.6 billion.
Bush admonished the Democrats to go back and enact his original proposals without any tax increase. "Do so . . . and I'll sign it," he said, "and then let's get on to the long-term agenda. But stop holding the American economy hostage in a partisan game."
Democrats reacted almost immediately - and just as harshly - charging Bush with using the White House to launch a purely partisan campaign.
"The president doesn't want a (tax-cut) bill, he wants an issue," Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, complained at a press conference following the president's speech. He urged Bush to "start acting like a president, not a panicky candidate."
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., called Bush's message "the most partisan speech that I have heard a president deliver. We didn't hear a statement by President Bush - we heard a statement by candidate Bush," he told reporters.
The president's action is expected to kill prospects for any broad-scale tax relief for the rest of the year and turn the tax issue into a political football. Democratic leaders said they were unlikely to write new tax legislation, at least for several months.
The vote in the House was 211-189 - a somewhat larger margin than had approved previous versions of the bill, but still well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Bush's veto. Approval in the Senate came on a vote of 50-44.
The massive legislation, which combined major features of previously approved House and Senate bills, included a tax reduction for middle-income Americans, along with modified versions of six of the seven tax-cut provisions that Bush initially proposed in January.
But few of those proposals were adopted in anything close to the form that the president had suggested, and the bill also contained substantial tax increases for the rich. The Democrats say the increases are needed to help finance the tax reductions, but Bush strongly opposed any tax increases.
Each party has been hoping to blame the other for blocking the legislation, with Bush lambasting the Democrats for pushing through a tax increase and Democratic leaders criticizing him in turn for denying a tax-cut for the middle class.
Moments before the House vote, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, sounded the Democrats' trumpet-call, contending that "we have met the president's challenge" and passed a "fairer" bill than Bush proposed.
But Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, chief Republican opponent in the House, argued that Bush would be right to reject the measure because "it will not create any jobs or provide any growth anywhere." He called the bill "a freight train that is headed nowhere."
As has been the case in previous balloting, the votes in both chambers were essentially along party lines. Still, a full 40 House Democrats broke ranks to oppose the bill, reflecting a widespread fear that it would not help the economy and might only increase the deficit.
For 1992 and 1993, the new measure would have offered working Americans a temporary tax credit of $150 a person, designed to offset Social Security payroll taxes. For 1994 and beyond, it would have provided a permanent tax credit for families, amounting to $300 for each child aged 16 or under. In both cases, the credits would decline for persons earning $50,000 a year or more. Those earning $70,000 or more would not be eligible at all.
The bill also would have reduced tax rates on capital gains - profits from the sale of stocks or other assets - but would have targeted the cuts so that lower-income taxpayers would have received the biggest breaks. And it would have provided a new tax break for venture-capital.