Media outlets uncritically reported McCain's dubious defense of vote against Bush tax cuts

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI

CNN national correspondent John King uncritically reported that Sen. John McCain "says he opposed the Bush tax cuts because the plan did not also include spending cuts." The Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, and the Palm Beach Post also similarly reported McCain's assertion. But in a floor statement during the Senate debate on the 2001 tax cut bill, McCain did not mention the absence of offsetting spending cuts; rather, he stated, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief."

In recent days, CNN's The Situation Room, the Los Angeles Times, Palm Beach Post, and Bloomberg News all uncritically reported Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) explanation that he originally voted against the Bush tax cuts because they were not paired with spending cuts. But in the floor statement McCain made during the May 2001 Senate debate on the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA) conference committee report, in which he explained why he was not voting for the final bill, McCain did not mention the absence of offsetting spending cuts. In that statement -- which is available on his Senate website -- McCain said that while he supported an earlier version of the bill "that provided more tax relief to middle income Americans," he could not "in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief."

In that same floor statement, he suggested that neither the cost of the tax cut nor the spending restrictions that would result were the deciding factor behind his opposition to the EGTRRA conference report. Said McCain: "I supported a $1.35 trillion tax cut" -- referring to his support for the Senate version of the EGTRRA (known as the RELIEF Act) -- "despite my concern that a tax cut of that size would restrict our ability to fund necessary increases in defense spending." The conference committee version of EGTRRA -- the one McCain said he was voting against -- also had a 10-year total estimated cost of $1.35 trillion.

After opposing the tax cuts in 2001, McCain also voted against legislation in 2003 to accelerate the tax reductions enacted in the 2001 bill and to cut dividends and capital-gains taxes. In 2006, he switched positions and voted for the bill extending the 2003 tax cuts. When asked during the April 2, 2006, broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press why he had changed his mind on Bush's tax cuts, McCain replied: "I do not believe in tax increases. ... The tax cuts are now there and voting to revoke them would have been to -- not to extend them would have meant a tax increase."

The following news outlets have reported McCain's claim that the absence of spending cuts led him to initially oppose Bush's 2001 tax cut package without noting that he made no mention of the spending issue in his May 2001 floor statement explaining his vote:

  • CNN: On the January 21 edition of The Situation Room, chief national correspondent John King reported that "McCain says he opposed the Bush tax cuts because the plan did not also include spending cuts." Similarly, on the January 8 edition of The Situation Room, King repeated McCain's explanation that he "didn't vote for the Bush tax cuts because there weren't spending cuts." But when CNN reported on McCain's initial opposition to the tax cuts in 2001, it only reported his concern that the cuts disproportionately benefited the wealthy. Indeed, on May 26, 2001, during the noon ET hour, CNN aired "Breaking News" on the Senate's passage of Bush's tax cut legislation and then-CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl reported that "there were two Republicans voting no" including "McCain who was concerned about too much tax cuts for the wealthy."
  • Los Angeles Times: In a January 21 article, Los Angeles Times staff writers Seema Mehta, Peter Nicholas and Stephen Braun reported the assertion by McCain "aides" that "he had voted against Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 because they were not paired with spending reductions." By contrast, Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske wrote in an April 9, 2007, article that, in 2001, McCain "called the tax cut "too tilted" to the rich, a charge he repeated in 2003." From the article:

McCain criticized the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

"I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who need tax relief," he said in 2001. He called the tax cut "too tilted" to the rich, a charge he repeated in 2003.

Those comments, as well as McCain's votes, angered conservatives. The Club for Growth called it "class-warfare-laced opposition."

McCain's advisors say his votes were based more on fine-print disputes about the legislation than on ideology. They said McCain voted last year to extend some of the cuts, saying that to vote otherwise would effectively mean supporting a tax increase.

Similarly, after Congress approved the original tax cut package, Times staff writer Janet Hook reported in a May 27, 2001, article that "McCain agreed with charges that the measure is unfair" because, in McCain's words, "so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans." Hook did not report any statements from McCain regarding the absence of spending cuts. From the article:

In a bittersweet triumph for President Bush, the House and Senate on Saturday gave final approval to a $1.35-trillion tax cut that will dramatically reshape government priorities -- and reduce individual tax burden -- for years to come.

[...]

The two Republican senators who voted against the bill included John McCain of Arizona, Bush's 2000 rival in the GOP presidential primaries and his nemesis on a range of legislative issues. McCain agreed with charges that the measure is unfair. "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who need tax relief."

The other dissenting Republican was Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a moderate.

  • Bloomberg: In a January 22 article, Bloomberg News reported: "Amid rising public angst over the economy, McCain has stressed his support for making President George W. Bush's tax cuts permanent, saying he voted against them only in the absence of spending cuts."
  • Palm Beach Post: On the same day, the Palm Beach Post reported that McCain "wants to cut the corporate tax rate and give other business tax breaks to stimulate the economy. He also says the Bush tax cuts he originally voted against should be made permanent." The article continued: "McCain said he originally opposed the tax cuts because they weren't tied to spending cuts. Now, he said, allowing the tax cuts to expire would amount to a tax increase."

McCain's entire statement, from the May 26, 2001, Senate debate on the EGTRRA conference report, as reported in the Congressional Record (and reprinted in a press release from McCain's Senate office):

Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, I rise to oppose the Conference Report on the Reconciliation bill [EGTRRA]. I do so after having expressed hope that the progress we made in the Senate bill to scale back the benefits going to the top rate taxpayers to make room for more tax relief to lower income Americans would prevail in the final tax bill.

During the debate on the Senate version of the tax reconciliation bill, I had urged my colleagues that substantial tax relief to middle income Americans should be our top priority. While I regret that my amendment to cut the top rate by one percent to 38.6 percent so millions more middle class Americans would fall into the 15 percent tax bracket failed on a tie vote, Senator [Charles] Grassley [R-IA] did move in that direction in the Senate bill by insisting that the top rate should be cut to only 36 percent. As a result, I reluctantly voted for the bill but pledged to vote against the Conference Report should further reductions in the top tax rate be made at the expense of the majority of Americans who are in much greater need of tax relief.

Unfortunately, the Conference Report did just that by jettisoning the commendable work both Senators GRASSLEY and [Max] BAUCUS [D-MT] did in crafting a Senate reconciliation bill that provided more tax relief to middle income Americans. This Conference Report lowers the top rate cut to 35 percent, at the cost of delaying, for several years, much needed tax relief for married couples unfairly penalized by our tax code.

I regret having to vote against this Conference Report. We had an opportunity to provide much more tax relief to millions of hard-working Americans. I supported a $1.35 trillion tax cut despite my concern that a tax cut of that size would restrict our ability to fund necessary increases in defense spending. But I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief.

From the January 21 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

McCAIN: We come into Florida with some wind at our back.

KING: At the moment, the economy is the lead debating point.

McCAIN: Say, I understand the economic difficulties that are affecting Florida and this country.

KING: McCain says he opposed the Bush tax cuts because the plan did not also include spending cuts. Now, he says he backs the White House plan to stimulate the economy with new tax cuts and rebates, but adds a warning.

McCAIN: If Congress loads it up with the pork-barrel projects, which is a major reason why we've gotten into this mess, then, obviously, I would be in opposition to it.

KING: Now, all along, Rudy Giuliani has said, a win here in Florida on the 29th would springboard him into those 20-plus states, Wolf, voting on Super Tuesday, February 5.

John McCain today saying, though, he believes he will win here in Florida, and asked about the new attacks from Giuliani, he attributed to the fact that McCain now runs slightly ahead in the polls here in Florida and ahead in two new polls out in Rudy Giuliani's home state of New York -- Wolf.

Posted In
Economy, Taxes
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
John King
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
Stories/Interests
John McCain, 2008 Elections
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