WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore and congressional Democrats accused Republicans on Thursday of "recklessness" in pushing for an $80 billion tax cut paid for by projected budget surpluses, as both parties staked out territory for the fall election campaigns.
Republicans, meanwhile, characterized the Democratic complaints that the cuts jeopardize Social Security as hypocritical because President Clinton is proposing emergency spending out of the surplus that the GOP estimates will total $31 billion or more.
With Republicans planning a House vote Saturday on the tax package, Gore and Democratic congressional leaders gathered in bright sunshine on the Capitol's east steps with a sign-waving crowd of about 300 senior citizens and labor union members to renew Clinton's veto threat and claim the GOP is failing to protect Social Security.
"The American people don't want them fooling with Social Security," Gore said. "We need an unbreakable commitment to making this the top priority."
The crowd responding enthusiastically, at one point breaking into a "No, Newt!" chant led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., aimed at urging Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., not to pass the tax cuts.
Reminding the audience that budget deficits reached $290 billion during the last of two preceding Republican administrations -- there was also a recession and a Democratic Congress then -- Gore contended the House GOP was bowing to its "far right-wing extremists" in advocating the cuts instead of responsibly reserving the surplus.
"We've seen what their fiscal recklessness has done to this country before," Gore said.
During an appearance in the White House's Rose Garden on other issues, Clinton noted that the surplus was 29 years in the making.
"Let's don't get into that and spend it in an election-year tax cut until we have saved Social Security for the 21st century, for the sake of our children and our grandchildren," the president said.
Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the Clinton administration "can't have it both ways" if it wants the surplus to pay for spending on the farm crisis, embassy security, the Year 2000 computer problem and replenishing the International Monetary Fund.
"The Democrats shouldn't oppose using the surplus for tax cuts if they support using it for more spending," Archer said.
Yet, the Republicans are sensitive to the potency of Social Security as a campaign issue. In addition to passing the five-year package of tax cuts, the House is expected to approve a separate bill stating that 90 percent of the surplus -- estimated at $1.6 trillion over 10 years -- should be reserved until Social Security is guaranteed for the future.
As millions of baby boomers age, the retirement fund is projected to begin losing money in 2013 and would become insolvent by 2032 unless reforms are enacted, Gore said.
The tax package includes relief for farmers, married couples, senior citizens who work, small businesses, people with savings accounts and students saving for private colleges, among others. It also extends several expiring tax credits sought by big business.
Because of this broad political appeal, many Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, have endorsed the individual items but most oppose spending the surplus. Democrats have an alternative that calls for the cuts to wait for a "trigger" that would release them once a Social Security guarantee is in place.
Still, Republicans expect as many as two dozen Democratic votes in favor of their package.
"Some people may vote for it just to neuter the election issue," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
Said Archer: "I am confident that we'll pass it."
The House Democratic whip, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, said Democrats have enough votes to sustain a Clinton veto. And in the Senate, Republicans would have to get 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles blocking the bill; there are 55 GOP senators and five have expressed reservations about the tax cuts.
"We're going to stop them from raiding Social Security," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Senate Democrats have proposed a $25 billion tax-cut package that would not spend any of the surplus, but they have not detailed how that would be offset.