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Ready for an agreement to go home

They've spent weeks in a debate about how they want to tax the rich, but now members of Congress are starting to worry about another problem: getting home to run for re-election. With the Nov. 6 election less than two weeks away, some rank-and-file House Democrats and Republicans were hoping that a new tax package unveiled Wednesday would pass quickly and set them free. Already Congress will adjourn later in an election year than at any time since World War II.

"It looks like the responsible thing to do is vote for it, let the president sign it, and let my constituents start worrying more about football games on the weekend than Congress," said Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Texas.

Democrats contend they've won a fight for symbolism on what they call "tax fairness" and have made the GOP and President Bush look like friends of the wealthy for opposing a surtax on the wealthy and higher-income tax rates. Some GOP lawmakers grudgingly agree, but they argue that the focus is now on the ineptitude of the Democrat-controlled Congress.

"We look like a bunch of damn fools up here," sighed Florida GOP Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., who hoped that perception will bring about quick action. "If that is what makes us act responsibly, so be it."

Shaw noted that the latest plan does not cut Medicare as deeply as an earlier proposal that emerged from the summer summit between the Bush administration and congressional leaders. And the new deal has a more palatable 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase, rather than the 12-cent-a-gallon increase in the defeated summit plan.

"It's going to be a much preferable package than the one we really walked the plank on a few weeks ago," Shaw said.

But when lawmakers return home _ someday _ strategists say they may find voters in a foul mood. Some experts say the voters will blame incumbents of either party. Others say polls show the last several days have been devastating for Republican candidates.

"In the last 10 days, Republicans have taken a nose dive," said Rep. Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican.

Ed Rollins, the co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has advised candidates to distance themselves from the president.

On a campaign trip Tuesday, Bush found GOP candidates less than willing to stand up as his partner in Congress. Vermont Republican Rep. Peter Smith, for example, opened a fund-raiser with Bush by clearly stating his differences with the president over the budget and his veto of the civil rights bill. Smith wants to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Democrats were boasting Wednesday that the latest package, which raises tax rates on the wealthy from 28 percent to 31 percent, achieves their goal of a fairer tax system that is tougher on the rich. But they concede the new plan is more complicated than the easier-to-understand "surtax" on the wealthy that was in an earlier version.

"Our candidates can run with this package. It's just not as clear," said Beryl Anthony, D-Ark., who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The plan also permits Democrats to continue blaming Bush for not permitting Congress to raise rates on the rich even higher.

Anthony said Democrats now have the job of simplifying a complicated "back-door" tax that hits the wealthy by limiting deductions.

Left unsaid in the Democrats' equation is the fact that the plan would boost taxes on beer, cigarettes and liquor, all hitting the poor and middle class harder than the better off. Some GOP lawmakers also point out that the current tax law _ now called unfair _ was crafted largely by Democratic Congress.

Some lawmakers also complained that the newest plan looks like a tax on big families, because of its limitations on deductions.

"I think those of us who have large Catholic constituencies will have a hard time explaining why you have to pay more taxes if you have more children," said Rep. Thomas Downey, D-N.Y.

But he added: "I think as the clock ticks inexorably to the election, people don't want to be here next week."