Freedom Caucus chairman courts Dems on tax reform

Freedom Caucus chairman courts Dems on tax reform
© Greg Nash

Rep. Mark Meadows, the conservative hard-liner and chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, is playing an unlikely role in the push for tax reform: liaison to Democrats.

In a bid to help shape and build support for the tax package, the North Carolina Republican has been reaching across the aisle to a handful of moderate Democrats, he told The Hill in an interview. The outreach includes Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyMaryland Dem announces 2020 presidential bid House Rules Committee to consider 5 billion highway bill House panel approves 5B highway bill MORE (Md.), who has said he’s running for president in 2020, and Rep. John GaramendiJohn GaramendiLawmakers mark Women’s Equality Day .6 billion for a wall? Let’s spend it on a sure thing instead: the Coast Guard Coast Guard OKs kayakers on river near Trump's Virginia golf course MORE, the former California insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor. 

Meadows’s top ally, former Freedom Caucus chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has taken part in many of those informal, bipartisan discussions.

A number of skeptical, moderate Republicans could peel off from the GOP tax-reform bill, so Meadows and Jordan are looking to make up for those losses with Democratic votes. 

“Jim Jordan and I believe that tax reform is a critical component that we must deliver on and that it doesn't necessarily follow along a Republican or conservative line as much as it follows along a line that supports all the hard-working American taxpayers across the country,” Meadows told The Hill in an interview. 

“So we've been reaching out to Democrats to find areas of consensus and agreement that might ultimately end up in a final bill that reaches the president's desk,” he added. 

Meadows, a real estate developer elected to Congress in 2012, first stormed onto the national stage in 2015, when he forced out then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner‘Lone wolf’ characterization of mass murderers is the epitome of white privilege Pelosi urges Ryan to create select committee on gun violence Ex-congressman Michael Grimm formally announces bid for old seat MORE (R-Ohio), mostly for cutting too many spending deals with President Obama and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). 

Now it’s Meadows who’s wheeling and dealing. 

The Democrats have been gauging whether the Freedom Caucus leaders are interested in pairing tax reform with infrastructure. Delaney has introduced two bills aimed at tapping into cash stored overseas. One measure would establish a $50 billion infrastructure bank to finance local transportation, energy, water and education projects.

The other bill, co-authored by Freedom Caucus Rep. Ted YohoTed YohoDem lawmaker renews push for infrastructure, tax package Savings through success in foreign assistance GOP rep: I would have met with Russians for opposition research MORE (R-Fla.), would allow U.S. multinational corporations to bring back, or repatriate, their earnings at a mandatory, one-time tax of 8.75 percent — a discount on the current 35 percent rate and deferral option. 

“What I’ve said is: If tax reform included infrastructure, there’s the basis for starting to have a conversation with Democrats,” Delaney told The Hill on Thursday. “A large-scale bipartisan bill creates a pathway for money to come back overseas as a part of building infrastructure. And Jim [Jordan] was a co-sponsor. So that’s the nexus.”

Garamendi, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently hosted Meadows in his Rayburn office to discuss tax reform. The California Democrat said he’d meet next time in Meadows's Longworth office — so long as the conservative chairman serves coffee.

“Mark and I know each other very well. There is very little policy that we agree on, but we like each other. … We get into the underlying policy, and he knows that I’ve had a long history with tax reform,” said Garamendi, who spent decades in the California legislature working on tax policy.

“We’re coming at this from very different directions, but if there is going to be tax reform, I want to talk about it. If there is going to be tax reductions, I want to know who wins and who loses,” Garamendi continued. “We really both talk about the middle class and the working men and women, and we talk about small businesses. There is general agreement that that’s where we ought to focus.” 

Since its creation nearly three years ago, the Freedom Caucus — a band of roughly 30 conservative rabble-rousers — has been a thorn in the side of Republican leaders.

But late last month, the group immediately endorsed the tax-reform outline from White House and GOP congressional negotiators, giving the Republican plan a boost right out of the gate. 

With their endorsement, Meadows and Jordan, close allies of President Trump, now have a vested interested in seeing Congress pass the first major overhaul of the U.S. tax code in three decades.

“We want to make sure we get a package that passes,” Jordan told The Hill. He noted that he previously had teamed up with liberal former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on civil liberties legislation. “I work with all kinds of people, including Democrats.”

“John Delaney is a sharp guy,” Jordan said, but jokingly added: “He can’t beat Trump” in 2020.

Meadows and Jordan aren’t just reaching out across the aisle on tax reform. They’re walking across the Capitol, too.

The Freedom Caucus chairman has been a frequent visitor on the Senate side in recent weeks. He said he’s been meeting with a number of senators on budget and tax-reform matters. House and Senate Republicans still need to agree on a fiscal 2018 budget resolution, which would allow them to pass their tax-reform package in the Senate with a simple majority.

“This is going to have to be answered in a bicameral way. The more we talk, hopefully the better result for the American people we’ll see,” Meadows said during a recent interview as he emerged from the office of Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerDeficit hawks voice worry over direction of tax plan The Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Overnight Finance: White House requests B for disaster relief | Ex-Equifax chief grilled over stock sales | House panel approves B for border wall | Tax plan puts swing-state Republicans in tough spot MORE (R-Tenn.), the powerful Foreign Relations Committee chairman who’s been feuding with Trump.

“I can tell you that I’ve talked to no less than eight different senators,” he said.

Corker, who isn’t running for reelection next year, is a wild card because he’s said he’d be opposed to any tax package that adds to the debt. Asked about his budget meeting with Corker, Meadows replied: “I’m just making sure he understands where we are and I understand where he’s coming from.”

“We’re both deficit hawks,” Meadows added, “and I just came over to make sure he has direct contact with some of the deficit hawks on the House side.”

In an interview, Corker said making Trump’s tax plan work would require closing $4 trillion in corporate loopholes.

“If you don’t do that, you really can’t have tax reform. That is what tax reform is all about,” Corker said. “Otherwise you move to a simple tax cut which is nothing but giving money away.”

Still, Corker said he’s agnostic as to what specific loopholes should be closed.

“That’s the tax writers’ problem. That’s what I’ve been trying to raise Cain about,” he said.

“All people are talking about is the sugar — cutting rates and doing all this. They haven’t talked about the spinach part, which means you’ve got to have the intestinal fortitude to close $4 trillion in loopholes.”

Melanie Zanona contributed.