WASHINGTON (AP) Flanked by a jumbo refund-check stage prop, President Bush asked Americans to get behind his proposed tax cuts yesterday and said the reductions should be retroactive to Jan. 1 to “help get money into the people”s pockets quicker.”

He warned Congress and an army of lobbyists against add-ons, saying his plan is the right size “and I”m going to defend it mightily.”

In the White House diplomatic room, the president began a drive for the upper hand yesterday as he and Congress move toward formal debate over the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. He did not shy from the idea, emphasized by Democrats in what Bush decried as “class warfare,” that the wealthiest Americans stand to benefit the most.

“All the income tax rates should be cut,” Bush said. “Our tax code should not punish success at any stage of life.”

He stood beside a jumbo check written out to “U.S. Taxpayer” in the amount of $1,600, the average tax cut for a family of four under his plan, according to White House estimates, and gathered around him three photogenic families who, in the bottom three tax brackets, would realize tax savings.

Asked by a reporter why no one was there representing the big winners in the top bracket, Bush laughed. “Well, I beg your pardon,” he said. “I got a little pay raise coming to Washington from Austin. I”ll be in the top bracket.”

The former Texas governor makes $400,000 as president under 1999 legislation that doubled the $200,000 annual salary.

Bush has proposed lowering and simplifying federal income tax rates by 2006. Current rates are 15 percent, 28 percent, 31 percent, 36 percent and 39.6 percent. New rates would be 10 percent, 15 percent, 25 percent and 33 percent.

He would also expand child credits, ease the so-called marriage penalty and gradually repeal estate taxes.

Presidential appearances planned for today and tomorrow were to highlight such individual benefits plus the job-creation potential of tax cuts, before Bush submits his plan to Congress on Thursday.

Drawing battle lines, Democrats contended that Bush”s proposal would disproportionately help the wealthy and, combined with his spending plans, would bring back federal deficits. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said earners making about $300,000 would get enough of a tax break to pay for a Lexus, while people making $50,000 a year would see only enough tax savings to buy a muffler for a used car.

Sen. Kent Conrad, a top Democrat on the budget committee, said rate cuts need to be aimed more at middle- and low-income earners. “All I hear from the Bush administration about compromise is we”re supposed to accept their position. We”re not going to do that,” said Conrad.

Retroactively will not be part of Bush”s formal submission, aides say, but the president said yesterday he will fight for it.

Bush played down his argument that tax cuts could stimulate a slowing economy and underscored instead their bread-and-butter appeal.

“This is real and practical help when, at this time, many Americans need it,” Bush said, ticking down what $1,600 could buy: a year”s tuition at community college gasoline for two cars for a year or, with a political eye on California”s energy crisis, 24 months of electricity there.

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