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Below the radar, senators maneuver on budget and taxes

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While the campaign finance reform debate dominates the Senate floor, senators behind the scenes senators are preparing for a partisan brawl next week over the budget and tax cuts.

Senate Republicans plan to call for President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut in their budget resolution next week, but moderates on both sides of the aisle believe the cut is too big, which could imperil the resolution in an evenly divided Senate.

Republicans want to use the non-binding budget resolution to send a symbolic message of support for the president's proposal.

White House and GOP Senate sources say there are only 47 Republicans who can now be counted on to support the president, and the pressure is on to court the three outstanding Republican senators as well as some moderate Democrats.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, who says he is on the fence about whether to vote for the president's budget outline next week, said Bush called him Wednesday to try to get his vote.

"I told him (Bush) he really ought to suggest a compromise," said Nelson. "I don't think their plan to get 51 votes for his plan is out there."

Nelson said his problem is that Bush's budget does not have enough money for spending initiatives he supports, but he wants a large enough tax cut to stimulate the economy.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, who often tells his GOP colleagues in caucus meetings he thinks Bush's tax cut it too large and based on questionable surplus projections, said he is getting calls as well.

Chafee told reporters a judge from his state as well as Rhode Island's Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond called him at the behest of the White House asking him to reconsider his opposition to Bush's tax cut.

Despite the lobbying from Republicans, Chafee said he still plans to vote against Bush's budget because of the tax cut price tag and because it alienates Democrats.

"I don't really have a price tag. We should debate on how to use the surplus and not just rush to spend it," said Chafee.

Both Nelson and Chafee say they are considering a proposal Sen. John Breaux, D-Louisiana, is shopping around trying to lure moderate Republicans to support a compromise on tax cuts.

Breaux is pitching a proposal to lower the amount Bush wants for a 10-year marginal rate cut from $983 billion to around $800 billion.

Breaux said he would hope that lower number would help garner votes from moderates who think Bush's tax cut it too high. He said like the current plan from Senate Republicans, he would offer other tax cut provisions like estate and marriage penalty tax cuts separately.

"I can go with that (Breaux's plan) if it would get 51 votes," said Nelson.

Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vermont, another key Republican moderate who has not yet signed onto Bush's budget, said he thought Breaux's pitch was "very interesting," but stopped short of a full endorsement.

A Senate Budget Committee spokesman called Breaux's idea "a possibility," but other GOP leadership sources said they still plan to twist enough arms to pass Bush's budget without compromise.

GOP aides privately say Chafee is probably the only Republican senator they will lose in the end.

Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia has already said he'll support Bush's tax cut.

But the GOP aides acknowledge it could be as close as a 50-50 vote, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote.

One senior Republican staffer said of the Breaux proposal, "That's a bird with no left wing and no right wing right now."

Breaux said he told White House officials even if they twist arms and get enough votes to pass the president's budget, forcing a tax cut through with a such a partisan vote will poison relations with Congress.

"I told them it would be a serious mistake to get a 51-50 vote on this," Breaux told CNN. "It will affect a lot of things around here, make it harder to get anything done. If they want to change the culture in Washington, that's not the way to do it."

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said he supports Breaux's compromise efforts.

"There is no reason why a president who campaigned on this concept of being a uniter not a divider would not be engaged in trying to unite the Congress now as we try and resolve these budget issues," said Daschle.



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