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GOP BUDGET FOCUSES ON CHILD CREDIT

The Republicans' election-year budget blueprint focuses nearly all its tax relief on a $500-per-child tax credit.

It's still possible that cuts in other taxes, from the capital gains levy to the estate tax, could be sent to President Clinton by the time Congress adjourns in October. But only if lawmakers can find a way to pay for them.The budget plans before the House and Senate budget committees Thursday provide at least $122 billion in tax cuts over six years. That's almost enough to permanently enact the $500 credit, estimated to cost $137 billion through 2002.

The rest of the money for the credit, as well as funds for other cuts, will have to come from the extension of expired or expiring taxes, such as the $10-per-ticket levy on airline flights, and from closing loopholes.

In effect, that pits lobbyist against lobbyist in a fierce fight for a share of a shrinking pie, perhaps $50 billion to $60 billion.

"They've kept the per-child tax credit pretty much untouched and that means some of the other tax credits will have to be downsized," said Martin Regalia of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Everybody understands that to the extent one thing gets in there, some-thing else doesn't."

That's a far cry from last year when a remarkably diverse group of interests - the Christian right, small business, big business and senior citizens - united as the Coalition for America's Future to push for the more than $350 billion in tax cuts in the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America" campaign manifesto.

Congressional budgets are nonbinding guides that do not require the president's signature. They must be followed up by other bills making actual changes in spending and taxes. But in spelling out lawmakers' overall fiscal priorities, they achieve major political significance, especially in a campaign year.

The primacy of the per-child credit in the 1997 budget allows Republicans to de-emphasize some of the business-oriented cuts that Democrats have scorned as tax breaks for the rich. And that fits well with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's efforts to oust Clinton from the White House with a campaign stressing anti-tax populism.

"I do think that capital gains tax relief is needed but if the (Republican) party can only emphasize one, it will be better off emphasizing family tax relief," said Gary Bauer, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "It's hard for the average American to understand how capital gains tax relief will help them."

The GOP budget plans make room for a $500-per-child tax credit for couples earning up to $110,000 and for single parents earning up to $75,000. That will help 28 million families with 52 million children, said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

By leaving the other tax cuts they are seeking unspecified - and thus easier to retreat from - Republicans also are improving their chances of reaching a tax deal with Clinton, if one is possible at all in an election year.

"It gives them a strategy for working with the president rather than putting it all on the table and trying to ram it all down the president's throat, which they proved last year they couldn't do," said J.D. Foster of the Tax Foundation, a research organization.

But that doesn't mean groups pushing business-oriented cuts are giving up. "In these kinds of races, it ain't where you start, it's where you finish," Regalia said.