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Republicans will try to win over Democrats on tax reform

Washington Examiner

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Washington, September 10, 2017 | comments
by Joseph Lawler

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans are still contemplating ways to reach 60 votes in the Senate for tax reform legislation, a goal that would require a time-intensive outreach to Democrats even as they are pressed for time this year.

Such an effort would be an alternative to the plan long favored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of proceeding through the budget process known as reconciliation, which would allow them to bypass a filibuster and pass a bill with only a bare majority in the Senate. That route gives the GOP a shot at ramming through a partisan rewrite of the tax code, or even the temporary straight tax cut that some conservatives want.

But leaders in the tax push indicated this week that they are still willing to engage with Democrats to seek eight or more of their votes in the upper chamber.

"I think it's time well spent," said Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the "Big Six" Republicans in the Congress and administration who have been negotiating a tax reform plan over the past few months.

Yet all but three Senate Democrats in August effectively ruled out supporting tax legislation along the lines Republicans are considering and made demands of McConnell that the developing GOP plan isn't likely to meet.

Peeling off five votes from that group would be costly in terms of time, if it can be done at all. And after months of talks, Republican leaders still haven't been able to reach a final agreement among themselves.

But the pressure to act quickly is mounting. President Trump called on congressional Republicans to work on legislation "ASAP" Friday morning. "Hurry!" he implored in a tweet.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican whip, said this week that his party would first attempt a bipartisan tax reform before turning to the reconciliation tool. "[W]e'll also pass a budget resolution to get reconciliation instructions as a fallback, but we're going to try," he said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a member of the Finance committee, also said Republicans should pursue both courses. Asked if they could attempt such an outreach and still pass legislation in 2017, he simply responded, "we'll see."

In the past two weeks, Trump has traveled to the home states of two Democrats vulnerable in the 2018 elections to try to pressure them to vote for an eventual tax bill: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. White House officials have suggested that he will continue to tour Democrats' states in the weeks ahead, seeking votes.

It's possible that he could make inroads with centrist Democrats. "If we ran regular order, that would help the process become bipartisan," said Jon Tester of Montana, one of the Democrats who signed the letter.

But Republicans have not laid the groundwork to get the larger bloc of Democratic votes that would likely be needed to get to 60.

"The administration has not talked about specifics with me at all," said Oregon's Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee. Although Wyden is not one the red-staters who might feel political heat for failing to work with Trump, he has joined with Republicans to produce tax reform legislation, and he called the lack of outreach from Trump "unfortunate."

One reason to pursue 60 votes is that it would allow greater flexibility in writing the bill. The reconciliation process comes with a set of budgetary rules that would necessitate that the tax reform not add to long-term deficits, or else require that the changes phase out after a period of time.

Furthermore, getting significant bipartisan support would lower the odds that a future Democratic president and Congress undid the tax changes.

Getting those results might be worth pushing the tax reform effort into 2018, even though Republicans have said all along that 2017 legislation is the goal.

"We have a path to get this done this year, and we're still very hopeful we can get it done," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday on Fox Business.

"We want America to wake up on new year's day 2018 with a new tax system," House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday.

On Friday, though, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to rule out going beyond the end of the year. "As soon as we can, that would be our ultimate goal," she said. "But we want to make sure we get it done right."

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