Democrats, who decry the Republican plan as "a waste of a golden opportunity," are leaning in favor of using the projected surplus to bulk up Social Security and Medicare. Only when those programs are secured, and the debt is paid down, they say, can Congress offer such a considerable cut. They also say the GOP plan unfairly favors the well-off, and claim that their plan will direct money to low- and middle-income taxpayers. These are old arguments, says Baumohl, and there won't be an easy resolution, at least not before the November election. "The Republicans see themselves with the political advantage," says Baumohl. They're the benevolent, easygoing party in this scenario, handing out cash. "The Democrats have a much harder sell," says Baumohl. They have to convince the electorate that they will personally benefit if the government manages to sock away a few bucks for a rainy day. Though the Democratic approach has played well in recent polls, it has yet to face the test of the voter in the polling booth.
It's an election year and that means, among other things, that it's time for promises of miraculous, sweeping tax cuts that benefit all Americans and somehow hurt no one. That's the unlikely formula surplus-happy Democrats and Republicans are selling on Capitol Hill, and so far the Republicans have triumphed on at least one front. Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to adopt the Republican-sponsored Marriage Tax Elimination Act, which would cost the government $182 billion and return an average of $1,400 to the pockets of married couples each year. President Clinton has vowed to veto the act, but House Republicans are chalking up a victory anyway. "This has been a Republican sticking point for a long time because they know how popular it could be with the electorate," says TIME senior economics writer Bernard Baumohl. "And now it looks like the Democrats have decided to capitalize on the national mood and come up with their own albeit less generous version," worth roughly $95 billion.