How the Calendar Puts Pressure on GOP’s Tax Effort

Party wants to avoid health care-style debacle, Ryan says

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady talks with reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday after a meeting of the House Republican Conference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady talks with reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday after a meeting of the House Republican Conference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 14, 2017 at 5:00am

Republican lawmakers for months have been talking about a tax overhaul with a sense of urgency, but those words have yet to translate into action.

President Donald Trump seems to want to kick-start the legislative process and took to Twitter on Wednesday with some encouragement. “Move fast Congress!” he tweeted, followed by: “Go Congress, go!”

Congress, however, typically adheres to the pace of the tortoise over the hare. The tax overhaul effort — which GOP leaders at the start of the year said they hoped to complete by August — has been no different. 

A group of negotiators known as the “Big Six” started holding regular meetings on taxes in January, taking until July 27 to release a vaguely worded joint statement outlining their shared principles for an overhaul.

[GOP Tax Unity Statement Creates Messaging, Negotiating Room]

Two months later, that group will release a more detailed consensus document outlining a framework from which they will craft legislative text, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady told the House Republican Conference on Wednesday. The “outline,” as Speaker Paul D. Ryan called it, will be unveiled the week of Sept. 25. (The House is not in session next week.)

Brady, Ryan, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn make up the so-called Big Six.

The House and Senate tax-writing committees are going to take feedback they get from members on the outline and “go produce their bills in the weeks ahead,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday.

That means the earliest Republicans would likely release their separate tax bills would be mid-October. The goal is to have Trump sign tax legislation into law by the end of the year, Ryan has said repeatedly — an aggressive timetable, he’s acknowledged.

Brady told the GOP conference Wednesday the goal is to have the House and Senate complete the fiscal 2018 budget process by mid-October. The chambers must pass an identical budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for a tax overhaul so the bill can move through the Senate with a simple majority vote.

House Republicans plan to use reconciliation because they do not expect Democrats to support their tax plan. But Trump is actively courting Democrats, meeting with bipartisan groups of Senate and House lawmakers this week.

On Wednesday, he told House members he does not plan to lower taxes on the rich and that taxes might even go up for top earners, several members said after the meeting. Democrats said they took the comment as an olive branch.

Ryan and others, at times, have pointed to Thanksgiving as their preferred deadline for passing a tax overhaul, which seems to be practical given the need to deal with government funding again in early December.

So Congress is looking at six legislative weeks after the outline is released to pass what the GOP is touting as the most “transformational” tax overhaul since 1986 with the “biggest” tax cuts in history — if Ryan’s Thanksgiving target holds. Each chamber could get another week if the House or Senate cancel the October district work period. Then lawmakers would have three more legislative weeks scheduled after Thanksgiving that could be used to meet the more definitive year-end goal.

Momentum in details?

Despite the tight schedule in front of them, House Republicans were optimistic after Brady’s announcement Wednesday and see the task ahead as doable.

“I think September, October, November is a very realistic time frame because we want to get it to the Senate as soon as possible given the history of the Senate and their need for time to process things,” Ways and Means member Tom Reed said. The New York Republican predicted a bill could get through committee in October and to the House floor in November.

Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, chairman of the Ways and Means Tax Subcommittee, said once there is general agreement about large parameters such as tax rates and how international taxation is handled, “it completely energizes” the committee to write a bill with that framework.

While it appears the tax writers are behind schedule in producing a bill, Roskam wouldn’t confirm that. “Wild horses [are] never going to get a scheduling question out of me,” he said.

GOP leaders have said the tax overhaul push is different from efforts to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. This time, they say, the House, Senate and White House are coming up with a unified plan on what a tax bill should look like.

“We don’t want to repeat that again — that being taking months and months to get to consensus,” Ryan said Wednesday at an event hosted by The Associated Press.

Under the timeline GOP leaders are pursuing, members would appear to have a maximum of three or four weeks to review a bill from the time it’s released to the time it ends up on the floor — and the committees could make changes during that time.

While time may not be in the GOP’s favor, perhaps the pressure will.

“I think most Republicans know in their bones after the failure of the Senate on the health care repeal and replace that they absolutely have to do this,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said, noting that an “absolute imperative” is working in leadership’s favor.

How the tax cuts are paid for, Cole said, will likely determine whether the bill is successful or not.

“But in the end, I think we can make the deadline unless there’s something just egregious about the bill,” he added.

Even members of the House Freedom Caucus, who’ve been complaining for months about the lack of details on the tax plan, seem to believe it can get done. But they acknowledge Congress needs to pick up the pace. 

“You can play an entire NFL season plus half of another in nine months. And yet we can’t get a plan together?” former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio said.

North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the group’s current chairman, had a different analogy about tax writers and their efforts to write a bill.

“I’m sure they’re working and paddling like a bunch of ducks trying to get off of the lake, and they’re just going crazy,” he said.