Roadblocks ahead for tax reform

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House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) faces a crucial test in his long-standing quest to overhaul the tax code at the upcoming House GOP retreat.

GOP tax writers, seeking to be the first lawmakers in a generation to rewrite the code, already feel buoyed by what they see as newfound energy from rank-and-file conservatives on tax reform.

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But while those conservatives want to make tax reform a centerpiece of the GOP’s 2014 agenda, Camp still faces many obstacles in actually getting a tax revamp into law this year — scheduled to be his last with the Ways and Means gavel.

In fact, other tax writers say Camp is unlikely to delve too deeply into the nitty-gritty of his tax reform bill — which he has been crafting, with much difficulty, for months — at the retreat scheduled for the end of January in Cambridge, Md.

Instead, the tax chairman will likely look to more broadly reassure Republican lawmakers who have heard much about the popular tax breaks that would be on the chopping block in a reform effort, according to an aide familiar with discussions. 

Camp, the aide said, will not shy away from how difficult tax reform will be. But he will also explain the economic benefits he expects to come from a streamlined tax code, as he seeks to make Republicans more comfortable about reform prospects moving forward.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), a senior lieutenant to Camp on the committee, said the next few weeks were “very important in the sense of laying out a game plan.”

“I think on any major reforms, moving from the concept car to a production model is always difficult,” Brady said. “We’ve got to weigh how best we can take this message and these ideas to the American public. Because I think they’re winning ideas.”

Still, Camp faces some roadblocks on both sides of the aisle. Senate Democratic leaders have been cool to tax reform for some time, at times openly disparaging the efforts of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The two parties also remain far apart on how much revenue a reformed code should bring in for the government.

But more immediately, Camp has to convince his own leadership, led by his longtime ally, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), that tax reform is worth the effort in 2014. 

GOP leaders, seeking to expand their majority in the House and take back the Senate in November, are advocating a play-it-safe approach to 2014 that concentrates mostly on President Obama and his unpopular healthcare law.

Camp also faces challenges from the calendar, since lawmakers are scheduled to ditch Washington for the campaign trail for most of the fall. The Michigan Republican has said he wants to release a bill early this year after facing issues getting official projections in line last year. 

House Republicans want to drop the top corporate and individual rates down to 25 percent from their current 35 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively, a proposition that likely requires the scrapping of trillions of dollars worth of tax breaks. 

But even with those barriers, a House GOP leadership aide pushed back on any suggestion that the upcoming retreat would be a make-or-break opportunity for tax writers to make their case to advance an overhaul in 2014.

Republican leaders have tried in recent days to assuage the restive conservatives who want a bolder 2014 agenda, and Boehner said Thursday that tax reform was among the areas where his conference wanted to make progress.

“The retreat will be yet another venue for a discussion about this important issue,” the leadership aide said. “There’s going to be continued interest and effort on this.”

From healthcare to tax reform to the debt ceiling to immigration, House Republicans have a long list of topics to hash out in Cambridge, and the leadership is wary of promising it will leave the conference with concrete decisions on a path forward for any one of them. 

But it’s also true the Republicans’ 2013 retreat laid the groundwork for the conference’s fiscal strategies for much of the year, from their efforts to force Senate Democrats to pass a budget to their choice to delay a fight over the debt limit. 

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the conservatives primed for action on tax reform, said he hoped the conference could give similar direction a year later. 

Jordan said he had heard from allies like Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the likely next Ways and Means Committee chairman, and Tom Price (R-Ga.), another tax writer, that Camp’s bill was getting closer to being ready.

“We need to show the American people we know how bad this tax code is,” Jordan, a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told The Hill. “It’s important to show our vision.”

— Russell Berman contributed.