WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott raised the possibility Sunday that Congress could scale back President Bush's tax cuts in the future if projected surpluses do not materialize — a shift apparently intended to win support from reluctant centrists of both parties.
The suggestion from Lott comes one day after Bush indicated he might be willing to compromise on his plan to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion over 10 years and just a few days after a nationwide poll found that Americans would overwhelmingly support a tax cut if it were automatically pared down in the absence of a surplus.
Bush has opposed automatic "triggers" that would make tax cuts contingent on reaching goals in paying down the debt or having a certain level of surplus money available each year.
Tax relief passed the Republican-controlled House last week with little support from Democrats, whose help will be crucial if Bush's plan is to pass in a Senate that is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Lott said a trigger would inevitably undo the tax cuts. But for the first time, he suggested an alternative.
"I think that if you put a waiver in there for the president or if you had some sort of a midcourse adjustment opportunity where you sort of look at what's happening and set up a process — but a trigger, which is automatic, it's sort of like, now you see it, now you don't," Lott, R-Miss., told "Fox News Sunday."
He did not elaborate on how such an adjustment would work.
The trigger idea was proposed by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and several moderate Republican senators have joined the effort, including Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Susan Collins of Maine.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last week found that 73 percent of Americans would support a tax cut if tied to surpluses.
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who sits on the Senate Budget and Finance committees, said Sunday a trigger would risk putting a financial "straitjacket" on the country. But like Lott, he appeared open to compromise.
"I think we can come up with a way of giving Congress an expedited consideration of something like a midcourse correction, but we can't lock the country into a straitjacket. It is a workable, responsible alternative. I think it's something we're going to look at, but in the end the president is going to get this tax cut," Gramm told NBC's "Meet the Press."
He, too, did not go into detail about the "correction." All the talk of a midcourse correction marks a change from the approach used to win passage in the House — where GOP leaders pushed the Bush plan through, as is, on a mostly party-line vote.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said that would not work in the Senate and that Bush and his Republican allies must heal wounds caused by the House effort if they expect to win support.
"I think what happened in the House in fact will be interpreted by many Democrats in the Senate as almost an insult, a slap in the face to a real democratic process," Kerry said on ABC's "This Week."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN's "Late Edition" he believes the administration made a "tactical blunder" in pushing the bill through the House without bipartisan support.
Senate Democrats, who generally favor a smaller tax cut, will not be ignored, said Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. "The president's going to have to deal with us in the Senate, and I think he recognizes that," he told NBC.
Over the past two weeks, Bush has traveled to nine states to promote his tax cut and to pressure those states' Democratic senators to support it. Bush on Saturday also floated conciliatory language in newspaper interviews, telling The Washington Post: "I am willing to listen. There's a lot of opinions. There are a lot of opinions — there's a hundred opinions."
Among the compromise options on the table, according to Republican officials: reducing the amount by which the wealthiest would see their income tax rate drop.
That might help with Democrats who argue that Bush's tax cut is too heavily weighted in favor of the richest Americans. Sen. John Breaux, a moderate Democrat from Louisiana, one of the state's Bush has visited in recent days, said Bush is facing reality with his latest overtures.
"I think if we can do something that would address middle- and lower-middle-income people and not be quite so high on the top end, on the very top bracket, I think that's the potential for a good agreement," Breaux told CNN.