By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker - 02/26/14 11:11 AM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday sought to lower expectations for fast action, or any House action at all, on the sweeping tax reform plan that Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) plans to unveil.
“You’re getting a little bit ahead of yourself,” Boehner told a reporter who asked if the GOP would adopt Camp’s proposal, which is giving heartburn to some Republicans concerned about debating such a contentious issue in an election year.
The Speaker’s message boiled down to, "We’re just talking."
“It’s time to have a public conversation about the issue of tax reform, “ Boehner said, “and so I welcome the conversation, and, frankly. I think it’ll be healthy, be informative, and I look forward to it.”
Yet the Speaker was not ready to weigh in himself. Pressed on specifics of the Camp plan, he began by replying, “Blah, blah, blah” and spoke in generalities.
House GOP leaders have put some distance between themselves and the Ways and Means Committee chairman, who is releasing his proposal to rewrite the tax code after three years of hearings and conversations.
Camp’s plan would consolidate income tax rates into two rates, with the top marginal rate at 25 percent, down from 39.6 percent, for most earners. He would offset the cost by eliminating deductions and loopholes, and by imposing surtaxes on big banks and the wealthiest taxpayers.
While most House Republicans, including Boehner, have long voiced support for simplifying the tax code, some believe it is foolhardy to tackle the issue at a time ahead of an election and at a time when it stands no chance of becoming law. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday said there was little hope for enacting tax reform in 2014.
None of the six high-ranking House Republicans at a press conference on Wednesday mentioned tax reform in their opening remarks, and Boehner did not address the plan in a closed-door conference meeting earlier in the morning.
Asked if there would be a floor vote this year, Boehner chuckled. “Jesus,” he replied. “We’re going to start the conversation today, and I expect the members and their constituents and the American people to take part in this conversation. I think it’s a healthy conversation to have, and I look forward to it.”
He refused to engage in a discussion of its specific provisions but defended the broad goals of Camp’s effort.
“The idea of tax reform is to get our economy going again, provide better economic growth, more jobs and higher wages,” Boehner said. “The way you do that is to bring down rates, and to bring down rates, you clean out a lot of the garbage that’s in there and the special interest issues that are in there.”
Inside the GOP meeting, Camp told his colleagues of his plans to unveil his proposal, but he did not provide a full overview of the plan. Briefings for Democrats and Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee are planned for Thursday, he said, and a briefing of the full conference will follow after that.
Still, some rank-and-file members stood up in the meeting to discuss the forthcoming plan.
“It wasn’t wild enthusiasm, but it certainly wasn’t getting panned either,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said.
Camp pushed back on the idea that it was an election year folly to release a tax reform draft that slashes popular provisions, at a time when the GOP thinks it has the political high ground.
Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee said the time was now to get input on potential changes to even the most popular of tax breaks, like the mortgage interest deduction, the research and development credit, and the deduction for state and local taxes.
“The economy’s not improving. I’m not going to settle for 2-percent growth, more people on government programs, more kids living at home because they can’t get jobs,” Camp said. “The time is now. We’ve almost had a lost decade. I’m not going to wait for a lost generation.”
Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said he would withhold judgment on the bill for now but called it unusual that Democrats know so little about it.
Levin added he thought there might be pieces in Camp’s draft that could be built upon, like a new tax for the largest banks and ending the “carried interest” tax break used by hedge fund managers.
“I think there are pluses and minuses,” Levin told reporters. “But again, we haven’t seen all the pieces.”