Lucy and Charlie Brown in Washington

Commentary by Pete du Pont

We've all seen the "Peanuts" cartoon where Lucy holds the football and asks Charlie Brown to kick it. At the last minute, Lucy always pulls the football away and Charlie falls flat on his back. But no matter how many times this happens, Lucy is always able to convince Charlie that this time will be different and he will finally be able to kick the ball.

For the last two and a half years, Bill Clinton has played Lucy to the Republican Congress's Charlie Brown. He leads them down the primrose path, letting them think that this time will be different, that he will finally live up to his promises and sign legislation to curb Medicare, balance the budget, stop government shutdowns or whatever. And every time, the Republicans end up flat on their back when he pulls the ball away and vetoes some bill they were certain he would support.

I fear that the same thing is happening again on the tax bill. Republicans are convinced that Bill Clinton will sign the tax bill that has passed the House and Senate. Indeed, just the other day he said he wanted to sign a tax bill this year. But first the Republicans must tilt the bill a little more in his direction. Just add a few more dollars for education, Clinton says, scale back the tax cut for the rich and give a bit more for the middle class and he will happily sign the bill.

In my opinion, the Republicans are simply being set up for another fall. I don't think Clinton has any intention of signing the bill that will come to him from Congress, no matter what concessions are made to him. In fact, he would be a fool to do so. He holds all the high cards. He knows the Republicans need this bill far more than he does. Why should he settle for half a loaf when he can have the whole loaf?

Some may say that I am being too cynical. But consider the fact that Clinton waited until after both the House and Senate had completed work on their respective tax bills before he put forward a tax plan of his own. If he really cared about shaping the bill in a bipartisan fashion, shouldn't he have put this plan forward before congressional action? Of course. Therefore, his only purpose in putting forward a plan at this late date is to give him grounds for a veto.

Clinton will say that he is only trying to get the Republicans to live up to the budget agreement. But the budget agreement is deliberately vague on the details of the tax bill, save only for the limit of $85 billion in revenue loss in the first five years and $250 billion in the second five years.

Under these circumstances, presidents will normally send a proposal of their own to Congress before the committees begin marking up a bill. Since committees are where legislation is written, waiting until committee action is completed makes it extremely difficult to make major changes. Waiting until the full House and Senate have voted makes major changes virtually impossible.

When Clinton failed to send forward a plan of his own and stood by in silence as Congress moved tax bills through its tax-writing committees and onto the House and Senate floor, Republicans took this as tacit approval of the approach they had taken. But with Clinton one can never take silence as tacit approval of anything. In fact, even when he actively supports a measure one can never be sure that he won't switch gears and go negative. Witness his repeated vetoes of the welfare reform legislation before finally signing his own bill.

Therefore, when on June 10 Clinton finally put forward a tax plan of his own, it can only be taken as a ploy to set up a veto. While in theory Congress can still make adjustments to the tax bill in conference before final House and Senate approval, there are severe limits to how far it can go. Conferees are prohibited by congressional rules from adding any provision to a bill that was not in either the House or Senate version. Yet many of Clinton's proposals bear no resemblance to provisions in either bill. Consequently, they simply cannot be considered.

I believe that Clinton knows this perfectly well. He knows that it is legislatively impossible at this late date for Congress to offer more than token accommodation to his proposals. Thus the bill that is finally sent to Clinton must necessarily be substantially different from what he has proposed in key areas. This will give him the excuse for a veto.

Congressional Republicans will be shocked, they will moan and groan and howl in anger. But in the end, they will pass another tax bill with much more of Clinton's provisions included and their own provisions watered-down. Then they will crawl down to the White House for a signing ceremony and declare victory. But once again, I fear, it is Bill Clinton who will be the true victor.