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 CruzOvernight Tech: Facebook faces crisis over Cambridge Analytica data | Lawmakers demand answers | What to watch for next | Day one of AT&T's merger trial | Self-driving Uber car kills pedestrian The case for a new branch of the military: United States Space Force The problem with hindsight MORE (R-Texas).

He argues that GOP senators are falling short in enacting the Trump agenda, blasting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate tees up Yemen vote for Tuesday Senate confirms Trump's border chief House leaves out ObamaCare fix from must-pass funding bill MORE (R-Ky.) and his conference over the failure to repeal ObamaCare.

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 GrahamSenate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed Cornyn: Hearing on McCabe firing would be 'appropriate' McCain: Mueller must be allowed to finish investigation 'unimpeded' 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 FlakeSenate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed Trump prepared to hit China with B in annual tariffs: report White House, Democrats reject competing DACA offers MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerRepublican drops Senate primary challenge to Heller after Trump's urging Three states where Dems can pick up Senate seats GOP senator: Justice Kennedy is going to retire this summer 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 RyanSpending deal talks down to toughest issues, lawmakers say Schiff: I thought more Republicans would speak out against Trump Dem leaders pull back from hard-line immigration demand 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 MulvaneyBipartisan House bill would replace consumer director with panel The consumer protection bureau is having a Trump-induced identity crisis Overnight Regulation: Senate takes first step to passing Dodd-Frank rollback | House passes bill requiring frequent reviews of financial regs | Conservatives want new checks on IRS rules 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 BarrassoSenators target 'gag clauses' that hide potential savings on prescriptions USPTO needs to be forced to do its job and reject bad patents Senate Dems propose tax cut rollback to pay for infrastructure 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.