House GOP silent on timeline for tax reform

House Republican leadership and the party’s top tax writers declined on Thursday to lay out a timeline for an ambitious overhaul of the U.S. tax code, increasing the odds that committee action gets pushed into next year.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), a day after softening his promise to mark up a tax reform bill this year, said that he would continue to work on finalizing the measure.

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Camp and other Ways and Means Republicans huddled with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarty (R-Calif.) for roughly a half hour on Thursday, in what Boehner termed a “periodic” update on the tax reform bill’s status.

“I’m still refining the bill, and that work is going to be ongoing,” Camp told reporters after the meeting.

The House is currently scheduled to be in Washington three more weeks, leaving Camp pressed for time this year. Camp’s comments also came the same day that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), with whom Camp has been working on tax reform, delayed a key meeting over tax reform discussion drafts.

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Republicans on both sides of the Capitol — including House leaders, according to aides and lobbyists — have expressed concern that moving forward on a tax reform bill would undercut a budget conference that has until Dec. 13 to reach a deal.

Democrats on that panel have said that any budget agreement needs to increase revenues, and congressional Republicans say that releasing a tax reform product would give Democrats ideas on how to achieve that goal. Following last month’s government shutdown, GOP leaders and rank-and-file members also want to do all they can to keep attention on the faulty rollout of President Obama’s healthcare law.

Still, Boehner told reporters that the purpose of Thursday’s meeting was not to tell Camp to back off, and a GOP leadership aide insisted that the meeting was positive.

The aide said that the tax writers briefed leadership on the status of the tax bill, and that “everyone agreed that work should continue on this important issue.”

Ways and Means Republicans say their overhaul plan, which would eliminate or roll back tax incentives in exchange for lower rates, is close to being done. Camp and the House GOP are seeking to reduce the top individual and corporate rate to 25 percent, down from close to 40 and 35 percent, respectively.

That framework would likely mean cutting some very popular tax provisions, another concern GOP leaders are said to have.

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a senior Ways and Means member, told reporters Thursday that Republicans remain united on pushing ahead with tax reform, but just needed to coalesce around a strategy for getting there.

The Washington Republican added that he believed that leadership wouldn’t have let the committee go through three years of hearings and negotiations unless they were committed to the issue, and said Republican members of the panel still want to move forward this year.

“I haven’t heard people say I want to wait. I have heard people say, 'Let’s get going, we need to get this done,' ” Reichert said.

The top Democrat at Ways and Means, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), said that the events of the last few days underscored that tax reform had to be bipartisan to get across the finish line. With so few days left on the 2013 calendar, Levin added, the committee should now turn its attention to issues like expiring unemployment insurance and the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors.  

“The problem is that you can’t go it alone in order to get those done. There have to be some discussions,” Levin told reporters. “We need to focus in on those issues.”