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You might think that after promising to cut taxes for all Americans and then discovering that 50 million households — those that most needed it — would get nothing, the Republican leadership would be embarrassed and try to fix things. But that would understate the chutzpah of the Republican leadership, which knows, it seems, no bounds.

Republicans from President Bush on down have been declaring for months their determination to reduce the tax burden on Americans through a package of measures that was supposed to add up to some $750 billion, though in the end a compromise figure of $350 billion was reached. The most discussed of these measures was a cut in the tax on dividend income, but there were a host of other, less noticed measures as well. One was an increase in the tax credit given to families with children, from $600 to $1,000 per child.

In the final version of the tax-cut legislation, negotiated in a House-Senate committee, the credit was eliminated for low-wage families. A coalition of Senate moderates, led by Nebraska Democrat Blanche Lincoln, drafted a new measure this week to eliminate the perverse, mean-spirited technicality and restore the tax credit to the families that need it. But the Republican leadership, led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, is having none of it. You can’t give back money to people who “don’t pay income tax,” DeLay reportedly said this week.

It’s not enough that they pay the payroll tax, it seems. Money deducted from the paycheck by the federal government to pay for roads, park rangers and aircraft carriers is a tax. Money deducted from the paycheck to pay for the retirement of the elderly and the healing of the sick is not.

Republican leaders say that in addition to DeLay’s high-minded tax theory, there was a practical reason for eliminating the low-income families’ tax credit. It seems the negotiators needed to find $20 billion at the last minute to cover a crisis shortfall in state social-service budgets — a shortfall that, as it happens, had been the subject of intense lobbying by Jewish federated philanthropies, which depend on the state funds for their own hard-pressed social-service programs. And so they took the money from the kids.

Now that they’ve got their money, the charity chiefs say the fate of the low-income child tax credit is not their problem. After all, it’s not their kids who will go hungry.

Come to think of it, there’s no monopoly on chutzpah.

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