Camp ramps up tax reform sale

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House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) on Thursday embarked on a lonely quest to try and find congressional support for his sweeping tax reform plan.

Facing deep skepticism from GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol, Camp made the rounds on television interviews a day after releasing the most complete tax overhaul in years, exhorting fellow lawmakers that voters didn’t send them to the Capitol to “warm a chair.” 

“Look, it's February,” Camp told Bloomberg Television. “We're supposed to do nothing until the election? I think most people sent us here to work for two years. That's what the term is. We need to work those entire two years.”

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Camp’s fellow tax writers also received the first of what are expected to be several briefings on his nearly 1,000-page plan on Thursday, exploring corporate provisions with help from the Joint Committee on Taxation and even Treasury Department staff.

The Ways and Means chairman’s efforts are only going to escalate from here. Committee aides are scheduled on Friday to brief members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business lobby that has said it has concerns about Camp’s draft.

But even as Camp ramps up the sell job, his own GOP allies on Ways and Means continued to downplay the chances for progress this year, and even the impact of the draft.

Democratic tax writers, meanwhile, insisted they would continue to have an open mind about a plan they had little to no role in crafting.

But Democrats also declined to give Camp any credit for incorporating ideas popular in the party in his plan, like a tax on the largest bank, the elimination of the “carried interest” tax break and the repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

The inclusion of those proposals, Democrats suggested, merely underscored that Republicans were too aggressive in seeking to cut the top individual and corporate rates to 25 percent.

On the GOP side, Reps. Pat Tiberi (Ohio) and Charles Boustany (La.), both senior Ways and Means committee members, separately stressed they were “just being realistic” in noting that tax reform would have to wait until another year.

“I think if you were a betting person you could fill in any topic and say, it’s not going to happen,” Tiberi told reporters. “I think that’s a pretty easy statement to make about anything, whether it’s tax reform or anything else.”

Tiberi told reporters that the committee hadn’t even gamed out what sort of support Camp’s plan would need before it proceeded to more concrete steps like a mark-up.

“We haven’t talked about windows, to be very blunt and honest with you,” Tiberi said.

But Tiberi added that it would only be natural for rank-and-file Republicans – some of whom question the wisdom of pressing ahead on tax reform in an election year – to have even more second thoughts after seeing the trade-offs that dominate Camp’s plan.

In addition to Democratic-friendly proposals, Camp also slices a number of proposals with wide public support – like the mortgage interest deduction, where the cap would be cut from $1 million to $500,000. In all, the Ways and Means chairman gets rid of nearly a quarter of the 70,000-page tax code.

“First, there’s a shock and awe,” Boustany said about lawmaker reaction to the plan. “Then everybody has to take a deep breath and really look at what’s in it.”

“I think the important thing to remember is, it’s a draft,” Boustany added. “That means there’s still room to move, and change and modify.”

Ways and Means Democrats have taken a restrained approach to Camp’s draft since it was released on Wednesday, even as they pledge to work with Republicans on tax reform.

But that response also underscores that, given the divides within the GOP about Camp’s plan, Democrats didn’t have to ramp up any criticism of the discussion draft.

Still, Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat at Ways and Means committee, said it would be foolish to concentrate on just the portions of Camp’s draft popular among his party.

Camp would also scrap the deduction for state and local taxes, a provision most popular in blue states. Levin noted that Democrats had issues with how Camp dealt with manufacturing provisions and tax breaks for low-income families as well.

But even more broadly, Democrats suggested that Camp only relied on proposals they liked because he was grasping for every bit of revenue to get the rates close to the GOP’s longstanding rate-cutting goals.

“When you pick a 25 percent figure out of the blue, you have to somehow find a way to get there,” Levin said.

“We’ve argued from the beginning that you can’t get to 25 without giving up just about everything,” added Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), another senior Democrat on the panel.

Plus, Democrats said that they fully expected that Camp’s draft would balloon the deficit after its first decade, because of some gimmicks and one-time payments included in the plan.

“We’re glad he put it out there,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash) said. “They’ve talked about it – they’ve written budgets three times in a row in which they’ve said they were going to have tax reform. Finally, they put some tax reform out there.”