If Republicans are going to pass tax reform, they’re probably going to have to do it on their own.
While President Trump has threatened and cajoled politically vulnerable Democrats to support his top priority in Congress, some members of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill say it’s highly unlikely that Democrats will provide the pivotal votes necessary to pass it.
“My guess is if they’re not the deciding vote and they see it’s going to pass, we may get a few Democrats,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, in an interview.
Without Democratic votes, Republicans will need 218 out of 240 House members and 50 out of 52 of their own senators to pass tax reform, a tough task highlighted by their recent failure to pass a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act. But the Trump administration has held out hope that some Democrats would support tax reform, a less politically charged issue than the 2010 health care bill.
In September, President Trump lobbied two Democratic senators up for reelection—Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota—at rallies in their home states, which Trump overwhelmingly won in 2016.
In Mandan, North Dakota on Sept. 6, Trump called Heitkamp up to the stage to shake hands, saying she is a “good woman.”
“I hope we’ll have your support,” he told her. And in Indianapolis on Sept. 27, Trump called out the Indiana senator. “If Senator Donnelly doesn’t approve it because he’s on the other side, we will come here, we will campaign against him like you wouldn’t believe,” said Trump, smiling after his threat, masking it as a joke.
Democratic leaders are hoping an unpopular Republican president and an unproductive Republican Congress will lead to big gains in the 2018 elections, a midterm that historically benefits the party not in power. But they recognize that there might be a political advantage for some red-state Democrats to vote with the president.
“They will support things that are helpful for the people of their states,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And they’ll oppose things that are harmful to people in their states.”
Democrats provided crucial votes for President Reagan’s 1986 tax-reform bill and President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. This year, a small group of Democrats in the House and Senate appear willing to support President Trump’s effort, which has yet to be written into a bill. And a few Democratic votes would be invaluable to GOP leaders because Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Rand Paul have both warned they might oppose the package.
But even Democrats who might support the president’s goal to lower rates and provide middle-class tax relief have criticized the Trump administration’s outreach effort. On Wednesday, moderate Blue Dog Democrats, some of whom met with Trump to discuss tax reform earlier this year, sought to preempt Republicans’ efforts by releasing tax principles of their own—including that any legislation not add to the deficit.
“Bipartisanship ... doesn’t mean that you write a bill in the backroom and get a Democrat to stand next to you when you roll it out,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California. “We are not potted plants.”
Still, leaders of the Blue Dogs and the New Democrat Coalition met later Wednesday afternoon with House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady in his office to discuss the potential for common ground.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate Democrat up for reelection, said he briefly met with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Manchin said that he wanted to be “more directly involved,” adding that he was concerned the Republican proposal would increase the national debt. He argued that the corporate rate should be “no lower” than 25 percent and the so-called pass-through rate should be “at least” 30 percent.
“The way I’m seeing it right now, I think it needs an awful lot of adjustment,” Manchin said.
Marc Short, the White House director for legislative affairs, told National Journal that it’s “possible” that Democrats will provide the votes necessary to pass tax reform. He said the president would continue to travel to Midwestern states to woo Democrats and make the case that tax reform would help the manufacturing sector.
“I think there’s a healthy cynicism that looks at it and says that if we have 50 votes then there’s a good chance we’ll get 54—and if we have 49 that there’s a good chance we’ll be stuck at 49,” Short said of the Senate whip count. “All I can do is take people’s answers to us at face value. I think there’s been a sincerity in saying, ‘We want to get to yes and we want to work with you on this.’”
But many Democrats simply aren’t going to support the Republican proposal. The framework released by the White House and congressional committees would create three income brackets—12, 25, and 35 percent—double the standard deduction, repeal the estate and alternative-minimum taxes, cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, and set the rate for pass-through businesses at 25 percent. In a preliminary analysis, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found the plan would reduce federal revenue by $2.4 trillion over 10 years, and that the top 1 percent would receive about 50 percent of the total tax benefit.
In August, 45 Democratic senators wrote that they wouldn’t support “any” tax-reform plan that includes tax cuts for the top 1 percent or “any” effort that passes deficit-financed tax cuts. They also said it was “crucial” to pass the bill in a different manner—not using reconciliation but “regular order,” which would require 60 votes in the Senate rather than 50 and dramatically increase Democrats’ leverage.
“I don’t think the Republican leadership at this point has the political ability or strength to try and put together a bipartisan plan,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at a press conference on Wednesday.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who is running for reelection in 2018, signed the letter. He voted, as a member of the House, for the 1986 tax-reform bill, but not for the Bush tax cuts, which passed through the filibuster-defying reconciliation process. In an interview, Nelson criticized the closed, partisan way in which he said Republicans are trying to pass tax reform, as well as the Medicare cuts in the GOP budget, which unlocks the process. While he’s a member of the powerful Finance Committee, Nelson said that the White House had not tried to woo him.
“They’re doing it all with just Republicans,” he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”