Washington Prowler

Protections and Projections

Post-Enron men. The tax simplifier. New Democrat numbers.

By 5.30.02

Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt spent part of his Memorial Day weekend in Texas, stumping for cash and candidates, including U.S. Rep Gene Green, who diverted his leader away from fundraising to speak to about 40 former Enron employees about the injustices of the Republican-led House and Senate.

"No donations here," cracked a Democratic staffer to colleagues upon entering the church where the meeting took place. Gephardt didn't blame the Enron collapse on Republicans, but pointedly attacked them for passing a measure last week that in his view didn't go far enough to extend new protections to pensions. "The bill was weak," chimed in Green, whose district includes parts of Houston.

Green's people had set up the church meeting as a photo-op for local news outlets. While some former Enron employees were apparently aware it was a media event, others were angered by Gephardt's seeming uninterest in answering their questions after the TV cameras were turned off.

"I guess some people didn't understand that the purpose of the event was really to bring greater coverage for these ex-Enron employees," says a Democratic House staffer. "Simply by being there, Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Green reminded all Americans of what Enron had done, what capitalism not held to the rule of law could do. Just because he didn't address every question or concern doesn't mean he doesn't care."

Senior White House members believe that Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill may leave the administration if he successfully lobbies Congress to pass the tax simplification plan he intends to bring before Congress this summer and early fall. The legislation, which would not include any tax cuts, would bring to fruition one of the larger goals he set for himself as head of Treasury. "He helped get us the tax cut, and simplifying the tax code is a real hot button issue for him," says a White House policy aide. "If he got most of what he wanted out of the tax simplification bill, that might be the perfect exit line for him."

O'Neill has stayed around longer than most people in Washington expected. Many had him tabbed for exiting Treasury no later than six months into the job. "Everyone assumed he'd step out of line and embarrass the administration or something," says the White House source. "But he's generally done a good job. He's performed better for this administration than anyone might have expected."

Democrats got bad news from a recent survey by party pollsters Penn Schoen Berland. With a three percent margin of errors, registered voters said that if an election were held tomorrow, 40 percent would vote Democratic while 35 percent would vote Republican.

"It's still early, but if you were a Democrat, you'd hope there would be a bigger spread, taking into account the margin of error," says a staffer on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

More chilling: the approval/disapproval rating for congressional Democrats was 51-36. Congressional Republicans got virtually the same results: 51-40. "That sucks," says the Senate source.

A Democratic National Committee pollster says the Penn Schoen Berland numbers aren't as bad as they might seem. "We still come out ahead, and you have to remembers that a wide majority of Americans support a divided government," says the pollster. By this he means a Republican White House and a Democrat-controlled Capitol Hill. "There is a comfort level for that that Republicans will have a tough time overcoming."

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