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No Easy Answer for Vulnerable Dems When Trump Sends Invite

Heitkamp took Air Force One to N.D. event, but McCaskill skipped one in Missouri

President Donald Trump is pushing Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., to support a coming tax-overhaul package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump is pushing Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., to support a coming tax-overhaul package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One by one, President Donald Trump asked state and local officials to join him onstage during his Wednesday tax overhaul roadshow stop in North Dakota. And he saved perhaps the most important one, at least when it comes to getting the votes for such a rewrite of the tax code, for last, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

“You are all in favor of tax cuts,” Trump said to the group, as the North Dakota officials joined the audience in applause. “They work hard. They are with you 100 percent,” the president told the audience.

He then singled out Heitkamp, who had accepted his invitation and flown to her home state with him aboard Air Force One.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘What is she doing up here?!’” Trump said playfully.

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“I think we’ll have your support,” he said of an eventual tax measure, turning to speak directly to Heitkamp. “I hope we’ll have your support.”

Trump later noted that the last major tax overhaul package passed with Democratic support in both the House and Senate.

“You listening Heidi? Yeah, Heidi heard that,” Trump then said.

Trump also made a pitch that the tax plan — which remains in development — would help businesses in her state like North Dakota Guaranty and Title Company.

The president said that company’s owner reports feeling crushed by the U.S. tax system. He also said North Dakota ranches, many of which are family operations handed down from generation to generation, would benefit from his goal of eliminating the estate tax. 

Those Bismarck moments were a stark contrast to Trump’s comments during his tax overhaul kickoff event last Wednesday in Springfield, Mo., where he went after a Democratic senator who did not show up to hear that speech: Claire McCaskill.

Should McCaskill vote against any tax package, Trump delivered this blunt message to her fellow Missourians: “You have to vote her out of office.”

“She’s got to make that commitment,” he said. McCaskill’s office did not respond to an inquiry regarding why she did not attend the president’s Springfield tax event.

Experts said there is no clear answer for vulnerable Democrats when mulling whether to accept a Trump invitation back home.

“Missouri is tough [for Democrats]. North Dakota is tougher,” said William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide now with the Brookings Institute. “For a Democratic senator from North Dakota, whatever you end up doing substantively, starting off by snubbing the president of the United States is really not too smart.”

Galston’s comments are supported by Trump’s victory margins. He took McCaskill’s Missouri in the general election by 18.7 percentage points. He won Heitkamp’s North Dakota by: 36.4 percentage points.

“So from Sen. Heitkamp’s position, look, she hasn’t made any substantive commitment on taxes,” Galston said. “She was invited by this president and she accepted. It probably would have been a lot harder to not accept it.”

White House officials certainly hope the North Dakota Democrat soon will do just that. Based on her past statements about tax changes, Trump’s team has “some optimism” that she will be able to support the coming package, a senior White House official said Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, she explained her rationale for accepting the White House’s invitation.

“We’ve always said that we’re interested in tax reform,” Heitkamp told reporters at the Capitol. “I’ve had some conversations, as I’ve told you in the past, with Gary Cohn and with a number of the people in the administration — [and] continued to be curious about what the actual plan is.”

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Heitkamp signaled she was interested in what the president would say during the trip both in private and in public.

“The bottom line is: is it going to be good for North Dakota?” she said. “Is it going to be good for North Dakota farmers who are struggling, who now have huge operating loans so the interest deduction is important?”

Trump’s public courting of Heitkamp and other Democrats on taxes in Bismarck came just hours after he struck a big deal with Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling, government funding and federal aid in Hurricane Harvey’s wake.

Trump was thrilled — a pool reporter traveling with him described him as an “upbeat POTUS” — with the three-month debt limit suspension and continuing resolution of the same length, even though it caught the GOP’s top leaders — Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — off guard.

“So we [will] have an extension, which will go out to December 15th. That will include the debt ceiling, that will include the CR, and it will include Harvey — the amount of money [is] to be determined … because everyone is in favor obviously of taking care of that situation,” Trump said en route to North Dakota. “So we all very much agree.”

The deal Trump essentially struck with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi likely will give Senate Democrats more reason to accept future Air Force One and tax event invitations.

“It is easy at this stage for vulnerable Democrats to be at the launch of tax reform,” said Bipartisan Policy Center Senior Vice President William Hoagland, who was a senior aide in the office of former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. “How can anyone be against the concept?”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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