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White House Talks Tax Outreach, but Senators Guarded

Legislative director outlines ambitious timetable

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, left, here with Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso last week, has hopes for a bipartisan tax overhaul effort. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll)
White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, left, here with Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso last week, has hopes for a bipartisan tax overhaul effort. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll)

The White House sees Democrats up for re-election in states President Donald Trump won as possible partners in their effort to overhaul the tax code, but Senate Republicans appear less optimistic about the chances of a bipartisan bill.

White House legislative director Marc Short said Monday the White House is not wed to using the often partisan reconciliation process to advance a tax overhaul, though senators were hesitant to rule out that procedural tool.

“We’ve learned how difficult it is to thread the needle with 52 [Republican] senators,” Short said at an event hosted by the conservative Americans for Prosperity at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Senate Republicans fell one vote one short of the 50 needed (with Vice President Mike Pence prepared to cast the tie-breaking “yes”) to pass a “skinny” health care repeal bill. Other repeal-and-replace proposals the Senate considered under the reconciliation process also failed to garner enough support from within the GOP. 

Montana Democrat Jon Tester is one of the senators Republicans would be targeting. He said he’s open to working with the GOP but not if their approach to rewriting the tax code is like the one they took on health care. 

“If they’re going to draft a bill in the backroom and expect me to jump on board without giving input, I’m not wired that way,” Tester said. “You’ve got to have a process of regular order.”

Asked if the GOP needs to abandon the reconciliation strategy to get Democrats on board, Tester said, “I think they ought to have committee hearings and treat it like it’s a real thing. Because it is.”

Partisan option

But while Republicans seem to be leaving the door open to a bipartisan tax bill, they are not ready to rule out the reconciliation process.

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch said he doesn’t have any concerns about using reconciliation for the tax effort, despite the difficulties the party faced during the health care debate. “If reconciliation is all we have, I’d just as soon do it there. Look, I’m for doing the art of the doable. I’ve spent a lifetime here doing that,” he told reporters.

When asked if advancing a tax overhaul via reconciliation with only Republican support would be easier than a bipartisan bill, Hatch said, “Not necessarily, but I think most people think it is.”

“I think we should get tax reform done,” said South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, a Senate Finance member. “Whatever vehicle we have to use to get there, we should use it.”

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, also a Senate Finance member, said he is not sure about using reconciliation but didn’t think Democrats would work with Republicans on the type of plan the GOP envisions.

“I think if we picked significant things that we could do that we have bipartisan support for, which is pretty easy, that we could pass a bill,” he said. “If we get so bogged down in comprehensive stuff, I don’t know.”

The administration has talked to fiscally conservative Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, as well as red-state Democrats in the Senate, about a tax overhaul, Short said. 

Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats in next year’s midterms, including 10 in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin won by Trump in November.

“We’re confident right now that we’ll be able to earn their support for our tax reform agenda,” Short said.

Aggressive schedule

Short outlined what he acknowledged is an “aggressive schedule” for putting together a still-unwritten tax bill. He said he expects text to be drafted over the August recess and the tax-writing committees to begin markups “right away” when Congress returns after Labor Day. 

The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to mark up a bill first, hopefully, during the first week back in September, Short said. The Senate Finance Committee will also be holding hearings and markups on the bill around the same time, he said.

That would get a bill ready for House floor action in October and the Senate could take it up in November, Short said.

“Hopefully, we’ll have completion by mid-November,” he said about when a final bill could make it to Trump’s desk.

Short’s description of the tax bill moving through committees in early September suggests it would not include reconciliation instructions. The reconciliation process would allow the Senate to pass a tax bill with only a simple majority, instead of the 60-vote threshold that would require the support of eight Democrats under regular order.  

“We’re not necessarily locked into that direction,” Short said of using the reconciliation process to avoid the Senate filibuster. 

To kick-start reconciliation, both the House and Senate would have to adopt and reconcile a budget blueprint containing reconciliation instructions for the tax-writing committees. 

The House is struggling to find the votes to pass a fiscal 2018 budget resolution and the Senate has yet to draft one. The schedule Short outlined seems to be in line with his hopes that Democrats will join Republicans in the effort, but it allows them to switch gears to reconciliation if need be.

“It also affords us more opportunity to get the budget completed and passed,” he said. “We think the budget debate will largely be September/October. So we will have a budget complete, and if that’s the vehicle we’ll use, so be it.”

House Republicans have said they remain committed to using reconciliation, saying it’s the only vehicle through which they anticipate getting a tax bill through Congress. 

Short said he is not expecting drastically different House and Senate tax bills, as the committees have been working with the administration to ensure all parties are on the same page.

The committees are drafting the bills with the goal of making them revenue-neutral, the White House legislative director said, but he suggested that is not a top priority for the administration.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who accompanied Short at Monday’s event, was more reserved in outlining details but made a bold prediction. “We will have success,” he said. “This is a pass/fail exercise, and we will pass tax reform.”

Joe Williams contributed to this report.

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