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KEY HOUSE PANEL ACTING ON EXPEDITED TAX-CUT BILL

House Republicans today began advancing a bill that would slash income tax rates across the board and provide relief more quickly than President Bush has sought.

The measure, expected to clear the House Ways and Means Committee on a party-line vote and then pass the full House by the end of next week, would cut the lowest income tax rate to 12 percent from 15 percent for this year -- a year earlier and 2 percentage points lower than Bush has proposed.

All taxpayers would benefit because the lowest tax rate applies to part of all taxable income. The change would cut this year's tax bill by up to $360 for married couples and $180 for singles.

The bill would begin cutting rates for higher income brackets next year and provide tax relief totaling $958 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., committee chairman, said the bill would provide a "stimulus for the unsteady American economy" while helping "working income taxpayers both today and tomorrow."

Senior Democrats in both houses renewed their attack on the measure while unveiling a $900 billion tax cut plan they said makes better fiscal sense than Bush's $1.6 trillion proposal.

"Our plan is more balanced than the president's. It's more responsible. And it's fairer," said Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota.

The Democratic plan also would lower the bottom-bracket income tax rate to 12 percent from 15 percent.

Thomas and the House committee were acting on an extraordinarily rapid timetable, meeting less than 48 hours after Bush outlined his tax cuts in a nationally televised speech before a joint session of Congress.

The GOP made changes in the president's proposal that would expand the relief by accelerating a cut in the lowest tax rate and making it retroactive to Jan. 1. Thomas said Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill had embraced the changes.

Republicans said their measure would cost about $65 billion more than the equivalent portion of Bush's plan. Thomas said action on other elements of the president's recommended cuts, including repeal of the estate tax, would come later.

Thomas and other Republicans stressed that they were moving swiftly to help stave off recession.

Officials, however, acknowledged no legislation is likely to reach Bush's desk for months. Democrats can delay action on a tax cut until Congress has approved an overall tax and spending plan, a process that customarily lasts until April or May.

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