The Senate Hopefuls Pushing 'Tax Reform 2.0'

Other issues in Washington and on the campaign trail have overshadowed efforts to make the individual tax cuts permanent, but House GOP members vying for a Senate seat see an opportunity in this week’s vote.

President Trump listens as Rep. Kevin Cramer speaks during a campaign rally June 27 in Fargo, N.D.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Sept. 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

House Republican leaders and top tax writers are eager to tout their bill making last year’s individual tax cuts permanent—and to use it as a cudgel against their Democratic opponents in the midterms. But in Senate campaigns, “Tax Reform 2.0” has gotten barely a mention.

Unless the GOP challenger is a current House member, that is.

House leadership is set to vote this week on legislation making the individual tax cuts permanent, after the Ways and Means Committee approved the tax bill in mid-September on a party-line vote. Part of a three-bill tax package, the legislation carries forward GOP policy enacted in December in the sweeping tax-code overhaul.

But there’s little indication that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can muster the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation if it lands in his chamber. Retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker has said he would oppose legislation making the tax cuts permanent, citing the growing deficit.

There are a few Democratic outliers, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. Despite voting against last year’s tax bill, Manchin said he would vote to make the law’s individual breaks permanent.

“That’s what it should have been from Day One,” Manchin said.

While Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota tweeted last month that she’s “in favor of permanent, meaningful, tax cuts for the middle class,” she won’t support “a partisan tax bill” presumably like last year’s overhaul.

It’s unlikely that McConnell wants to give red-state Democratic senators a do-over vote after they opposed the tax bill last year. Holding the vote at least until after the midterms could give GOP challengers a boost against vulnerable incumbents such as Manchin, Heitkamp, Montana’s Jon Tester, and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly.

“There may be people in the Senate that would love—some Senate Democrats, like my opponent—that would love the opportunity to correct their mistake, and this would provide them that opportunity,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is challenging Heitkamp in November.

“If Senator Heitkamp was to vote for this it would be for political reasons, and if she wasn’t to vote for it, it would be a political mistake,” Cramer said.

That dynamic is playing out in other corners of the Senate midterm map as well, where GOP House members look to leverage their upcoming tax bill vote.

“We need to make it permanent so people have certainty and predictability,” Rep. Jim Renacci, who is challenging Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, told National Journal in early September. “So that’s the key, plus retirement savings; we need to make sure now that people have a little bit more money in their pocket, they’re able to save for retirement.”

Phil Bredesen, the Democratic nominee to take over Corker’s seat in Tennessee, may not be an incumbent, but his challenger, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, is still touting her potential yes vote to make the individual cuts permanent.

“I think that it is very important,” Blackburn said of the tax vote’s midterm value for House Republicans. “When you look at what is happening in Tennessee, tax cuts are working. They come up a lot as we are talking to our constituents. And people want the tax cuts to take place, they want to make certain that they keep the tax cuts.”

The smattering of Senate campaign talk about Tax Reform 2.0 comes amid the tepid voter enthusiasm for the $1.5 trillion tax code overhaul Congress passed last year.

Bloomberg News reported last week that an internal GOP poll by Public Opinion Strategies found that Americans said by a 2-to-1 ratio that the law benefits large corporations and the wealthy. And The New York Times reported this month that focus groups conducted by the pro-Trump America First Action this summer indicated that satisfaction with the economy failed to motivate potential voters on the tax cut.

“I think Republicans lost the debate before the vote was even cast in a lot of ways,” said Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. “We see this in polling, we see this in focus groups, that the average voter just doesn’t think they are going to get any real benefit out of this.”

For the most part, the economy and taxes have taken a back seat to other pressing issues this midterm cycle, with Democrats zeroed in on guarding protections in the Affordable Care Act and Republicans ginning up a sleepy base by warning about the dangers of sanctuary cities and gun control.

The Wesleyan Media Project found that less than 10 percent of advertising in federal races this cycle through July 31 referenced tax reform. About a quarter of ads mentioned taxes more vaguely in the same time frame, and Republicans kept up a similar pace of tax talk in August.

The package of tax bills awaiting a House vote would lift the 2025 expiration date on a host of tax cuts for individuals, pass-through entities, and estates, such as the 37 percent top tax rate, the increased standard deduction, and the increased child-tax credit. Other parts of the package would offer tax incentives for retirement savings and forming start-up businesses. The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the three-bill package could cost the federal government $657 billion over a decade.

The individual tax-cut language, in particular, could be a pressure point for Democrats who criticized last year’s tax bill as not doing enough for the middle class. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce started running an ad on broadcast and cable TV on Monday depicting Donnelly as an ally of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in “voting to kill the tax cuts for Indiana's hardworking employers and families” and urging him to back the House bill set to pass this week. One Nation, a political nonprofit aligned with McConnell, also ran TV ads over the summer pressuring Donnelly to support the new tax bill.

In the past month, however, the group has shifted its focus on tax issues to House members. The group announced an $800,000 campaign Aug. 30 criticizing Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Democratic Senate nominee in Nevada, for voting against last year’s tax bill and calling on her to vote to make the cuts permanent.

One Nation announced a $1.2 million campaign in Tennessee on Aug. 17, pushing Blackburn to vote for the bill. The Tennessee campaign also calls on Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander to vote for permanency on the individual tax cuts, despite the slim chance that McConnell will put the bill on the Senate floor before the midterms, if ever.

On the whole, though, tax reform has played second fiddle to other issues, much to the chagrin of former Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana. WPA Intelligence conducted polling last month for his free-market advocacy organization Club for Growth that found making the tax cuts permanent was “the strongest persuasive message” among 1,000 likely voters across 41 competitive, Republican-held districts.

“It’s classic stupid-party thinking among Republicans who are listening to the inside-the-Beltway buzz,” McIntosh said, “but not really paying attention to what matters to voters.”

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