Originally created 02/20/03

Bush goes to Georgia to tout economic plan



KENNESAW, Ga. -- President Bush's $674 billion economic plan gained the support of a Senate Democrat for the first time, although other Democrats are stepping up their complaints that his proposals disproportionately help the rich.

Bush was promoting the plan Thursday in Georgia, where Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., was ready to be the Democratic sponsor of a measure containing Bush's proposals. They include provisions to accelerate personal tax cuts approved in 2001, eliminate dividend taxes and create "re-employment accounts" to help the jobless.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, speaking with reporters on Air Force One as Bush flew to Georgia, said the president would highlight a new private-sector "blue chip" economic forecast projecting the economy would grow in the fourth quarter of this year by 3.3 percent compared to the same period last year.

Fleischer said Bush was emphasizing a portion of the report suggesting that such a level of growth depended on swift passage of his proposed tax cuts.

By contrast, more than 400 economists, including 10 Nobel laureates, said last week that Bush's tax plan wouldn't help the ailing economy immediately. Instead, they predicted that it would create deeper deficits that could drive up long-term interests rates and jeopardize the economy down the road.

The Democrats who want Bush's job have attacked the Bush plan, the latest blast coming from Rep. Dick Gephardt, who announced his candidacy for president Wednesday.

"We have to scrap the vast majority of the Bush cuts for wealthier Americans and corporations, and I'll tell you why: They're unaffordable, they're unsustainable and they're patently unfair," Gephardt said.

Gephardt and other Democrats, and even some Republicans say the nation cannot afford new tax cuts at a time when it has returned to budget deficits.

Fueling that debate, Bush was reluctantly signing a budget measure Thursday authorizing $397.4 billion financing every agency except the Pentagon for the 2003 budget year that began Oct. 1.

The measure was opposed by Democrats, who complained that it gives short-shrift to domestic security and park lands, and conservative Republicans who think it spends too much on lawmakers' projects that critics call "pork"

The package contains billions of dollars Bush had not initially sought for farm aid, highway construction, doctors and hospitals.

Politics loomed large in Bush's selection of Georgia for his economic speech.

First, the president was eager to tout his first Democratic Senate ally on the plan. Miller once said "I never met a tax cut I didn't like," and announced last month that he won't run for re-election in 2004.

Bush also is determined to carry Georgia in his presumed 2004 re-election bid. The state, which he carried in 2000, will have 15 votes in the Electoral College balloting that occurs in January after the 2004 election.

But Bush could find himself drawn into a growing political controversy in Georgia over a proposal by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue to ask voters whether to bring back the old state flag with its big Confederate emblem. Perdue, whose campaign Bush aggressively backed last year, says he wants the nonbinding vote to be held the same day as the state's presidential primary in March 2004.

Bush tried to stay out of a similar controversy during his own campaign in 2000, saying the matter was a state issue. It is a delicate political issue for the president, who needs to maintain his strong support in the South to win re-election. Many rural whites oppose getting rid of the Confederate emblem.

Bush's spokesman strove Thursday to shield the president from the new debate. "As a matter of principle, the president believes it's an issue for the people of Georgia to decide," Fleischer said.

From Georgia, the president was heading to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for a long weekend. On Friday and Saturday, he was to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.