Bannon becomes threat for Senate GOP on taxes

Steve Bannon is becoming a problem for Republicans on tax reform.

President Trump’s former chief strategist is threatening to support right-wing opponents to every GOP senator up for reelection, aside from Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (R-Texas).

He argues that GOP senators are falling short in enacting the Trump agenda, blasting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) and his conference over the failure to repeal ObamaCare.

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If the GOP follows up with another loss on tax reform, Republican senators know it will just give Bannon more ammunition to use against them.

“There’s one antidote to Steve Bannon: success,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration We are running out of time to protect Dreamers US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters on Tuesday.

A win on tax reform could quiet Bannon, Graham suggested.

“If people see us delivering on health care and taxes … all of our guys and gals are going to win,” Graham said. “But if we go into 2018 saying, ‘well, we just don’t have enough Republicans,’ Bannon will beat ‘em all or come close to beating ‘em.”

President Trump on Monday sought to balance his remarks about Bannon and GOP senators.

Standing with McConnell, Trump declared that he was “going to see” if he could talk Bannon out of attacking certain GOP senators, just hours after he expressed support for his former aide.

The Bannon attacks ramp up tensions between the White House and Republican senators.

“It’s not helpful,” said one White House official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about Bannon’s primary push.

People on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue are hoping to avoid the circular firing squad that helped doom their effort to repeal ObamaCare.

Trump and McConnell’s appearance in the Rose Garden on Monday was an acknowledgement that greater cooperation and trust is needed to secure a win on taxes.

But Bannon might not want to play along.

He has moved ahead with his primary push, backing challengers to Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Sasse: RNC help for Roy Moore 'doesn't make any sense' Sasse calls RNC decision to resume support for Moore 'bad' and 'sad' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDems look to use Moore against GOP Senate hearing shows Fed chair nominee acts the part Senate GOP votes to begin debate on tax bill MORE (R-Nev.). Great America PAC, which is linked to Bannon, has endorsed Kevin Nicholson’s Senate bid in Wisconsin. Nicholson has pledged to oppose McConnell for Senate leader if he is elected.

Asked whether Bannon would consider Trump’s request, a source familiar with Bannon’s thinking said the former aide respects the president and will always hear out his concerns.

Bannon has long had lukewarm feelings about the GOP tax plan. While in the White House, he championed ideas he viewed as populist that were ultimately not included in the unified GOP tax framework.

He voiced support for Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE’s (R-Wis.) so-called “border adjustment” proposal to tax imports and exempt exports, which was eventually set aside because other administration officials, GOP lawmakers and business groups opposed it. Bannon also reportedly pushed to raise the top tax rate for individuals.

Breitbart News, which Bannon helms, has published negative articles about the tax proposal. After Trump spoke last week to a group of truckers, it ran a piece that said “many of the men and women behind the wheels of U.S. trucks may see little or no direct benefit” from the plan.

Andy Surabian, an adviser to Bannon, pushed back on the notion the former Trump strategist wants to see the tax overhaul fail.

“That’s coming from folks who either don't understand or don't want to understand that Steve’s primary goal is to actually help the president advance his agenda, which is what this whole thing is truly about,” he said.

Surabian argued the primary challenges could motivate vulnerable Republicans to become solid votes for the tax bill.

“I think the effect of what Bannon is doing will result in senators being a lot more likely to vote for tax reform and vocally support the entire Trump agenda now to show that they are with the president,” he said.

A former Senate Republican leadership aide countered that Bannon’s primary efforts could lead a lawmaker who would otherwise vote yes on a tax bill to vote no instead, since “primaries are sometimes where the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

“I think it’s fundamentally counter-productive,” the former aide said.

The White House official played down Bannon’s power to torpedo the tax push, but also acknowledged that “you don’t want to give folks an excuse to say no, and with Steve Bannon out there throwing bombs at current Republican officeholders whose votes we need, [it] doesn’t help.”

While cooperation with McConnell might be in Trump’s interest now, it’s not clear how long the truce will last. The president has made it clear he will blame Republican lawmakers if the tax push fails.

“I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest,” he said Monday during a Cabinet meeting.

White House budget director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyConsumers need a hero, not a hack, to head the CFPB Overnight Regulation: Feds push to clarify regs on bump stocks | Interior wants Trump to shrink two more monuments | Navajo Nation sues over monument rollback | FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Senate panel approves bill easing Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Cybersecurity: Mueller probe cost .7M in early months | Senate confirms Homeland Security nominee | Consumer agency limits data collection | Arrest in Andromeda botnet investigation MORE said Tuesday it’s reasonable for Trump to be “frustrated” with Senate Republicans.

“Republicans need to start figuring out a way to pass stuff and not look for reasons not to pass stuff,” he said during an interview with Fox News. “They ran promising to repeal and replace ObamaCare, they haven’t done that. They ran promising tax reform, and we’re sort of hitting a hurdle on that.”

McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he doesn’t think “outside activities” like Bannon’s primary efforts will affect tax reform.

But he repeated his warning that if Republicans do not nominate mainstream candidates, it will put the party’s majority at risk and jeopardize its ability to achieve its policy goals.

“Our strategy going forward is to protect our incumbents and to help people get nominated who actually can win elections because that’s the way you get to change America,” he said.

GOP senators who are up for reelection next year downplayed Bannon’s primary threats.

“That has no bearing on it for me at all,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoScalise: House, Senate ‘pretty close’ on tax bill Top GOP senator: House and Senate 'not that far apart' on tax bill Sunday shows preview: Republicans take victory lap on taxes MORE (R-Wyo.). “I’ve been saying we need to do tax relief and tax reductions for years.”

Flake, who faces a primary challenge from Bannon-backed former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), said there’s pressure to revamp the tax code for policy reasons, not political ones.

“We haven’t done meaningful tax reform for over 30 years. It’s long past time,” he said.

Jordain Carney contributed reporting.