GOP lawmakers want Romney to stay fuzzy on details of his tax reform plan

Congressional Republicans are fully backing Mitt Romney’s broad-brush approach to tax reform, illustrating the advantage that both sides see in being light on the details. 

Romney, the GOP nominee for president, has his own reasons for making a sweeping argument for a tax overhaul, since specifying which tax breaks he would like to eliminate could anger voters who benefit from them.

But GOP lawmakers say there’s an upside for them as well. The less Romney spells out now, the more leverage and influence they’ll have when the horse-trading on tax reform begins in earnest, perhaps as soon as next year.

“Let’s suppose that he had a plan with every dot and tittle,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a former chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, told The Hill. “What’s the practical aspect of it? A president proposes. We dispose.”

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That sentiment is shared both by veteran GOP tax-writers and the freshmen in the Republican rank and file. They’re urging Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), to make a big picture, Reagan-esque case for tax reform.

But as they battle President Obama for votes, the GOP ticket is also under some pressure — even from some on the right — to offer a clearer picture of how they would jolt the economy through the tax code.

Romney’s tax reform proposal calls for an across-the-board 20 percent cut in individual tax rates, which would bring the top rate down from 35 percent to 28. 

The former Massachusetts governor has also called for keeping the current top rate of 15 percent on capital gains, and has said that his plan would not add to the deficit or shift any tax burden away from the wealthy — assertions that have been questioned by Democrats and some independent analysts.

Romney and Ryan have pushed aside questions over what tax breaks they would like to rein in to reach their reform goals.

“Mitt Romney and I, based on our experience, think the best way to do this is to show the framework, show the outlines of these plans, and then to work with Congress to do this,” Ryan said last weekend on ABC’s “This Week.”

“What we don't want is a secret plan. What we don't want to do is cut some backroom deal like ObamaCare.”

Democrats such as Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the ranking member on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, say the GOP nominees are simply hiding their real plans from voters.

“They don’t want to spell it out because they’re afraid it will help them lose. That’s the main motivation,” said Levin, who has long noted that many middle-class families rely on some of the more expensive tax incentives in the code, like those for mortgage interest and health benefits.

But Republicans on the Hill say that Romney and Ryan should continue to pound the same themes, even as they are likely to take heat on the issue in the future. They note that tax reform is a complicated enough venture without getting locked in on the details.

And while GOP lawmakers express confidence in Romney’s chances in November, they could find themselves boxed in if the GOP ticket were to put out a litany of tax reform particulars — and then fall short in November.

“The specifics — people can have different viewpoints at this point in the process,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Gov. Romney has a great case to make. So we’re hopeful he and Paul spend more time making the case for why we need it.”

Some lawmakers even went so far as to suggest that voters expect more of the nitty-gritty out of Obama and Democrats than from the GOP, which has historically worked to limit the reach of government. 

“When you approach things conservatively, it isn’t like you have to have too many details on your plans other than advocating more economic freedom,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).

Republicans have also made clear that, while they would prefer to work with Romney on tax reform and believe Obama’s leadership on the issue has been lacking, they’ll be ready to press forward next year no matter what.

House Republicans have already passed a somewhat different tax reform vision than Romney, calling for a 25 percent top rate on individuals.

“Paul and I have talked about it,” said Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), who serves on the Ways and Means panel with Ryan. “I think it’s really encouraging, actually, that they want to work with us.”

But Tiberi, the chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on taxes, added, “Regardless of if they win or lose, House Republicans in the majority will have a proposal on the floor next year.”

Erik Wasson contributed.