GOP tries to keep spotlight on taxes

GOP tries to keep spotlight on taxes
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Republicans are trying to stay focused on tax reform amid the barrage of developments related to President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and the broader investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. 

The House Ways and Means Committee held its first tax-reform hearing of the year on Thursday, a milestone that House GOP leaders went out of their way to talk up over the course of the week.

Ways and Means Chairman Kevin BradyKevin BradySenate expected to pass Russia sanctions bill for a second time White House pressuring House GOP to weaken Russia sanctions bill: report Senate proposes fix for delayed Russia sanctions bill MORE (R-Texas) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanAs Congress debates repeal of the estate tax, why not consider ending the gift tax? Ryan: Scalise is 'doing well' and 'his spirits are up' Poll: ObamaCare more popular than House GOP healthcare bill MORE (R-Wis.) started Wednesday’s weekly GOP conference press briefing with comments about the need for tax reform. 

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The press conference came the morning after a report in The New York Times that Trump had asked Comey to end an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn — an assertion that fanned talk of impeachment on Capitol Hill.

Ryan also brought up the tax-reform hearing, along with other accomplishments in the House, during his weekly press briefing on Thursday.

“People in the country need to know that we are busy at work trying to solve their problems,” Ryan said. “I realize that there’s a lot in the media these days. That doesn’t seize up Congress.”

GOP lawmakers insist the storms of controversy around the Trump White House won’t hinder their ability to advance tax reform and other legislative goals. 

“I’m not letting that distract me,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). He added that he was going to continue his work and “try to play whatever role I can in helping us to find a consensus where we can do some really pro-growth tax reform.”

Some lawmakers also suggested that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s announcement Wednesday to appoint a special counsel for the Russia investigation would be helpful in keeping the agenda on track.

The investigation is “going to play out over many months, so we don’t need to talk about it anymore,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) said.

Even before Trump fired Comey last week, some analysts had suggested that the timeline for tax reform was slipping into 2018, given that healthcare and budget issues need to be addressed before Congress can pass a tax bill.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellFour Senate conservatives say they oppose ObamaCare repeal bill The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Police remove protesters opposed to ObamaCare repeal from McConnell's office MORE (R-Ky.) appeared to give some wiggle room on the timetable, saying that lawmakers want to finish tax reform “this Congress.” But House leaders on tax reform remain firm on their belief that legislation will pass by the end of this year.

“I’m of the view that 2017 is the year,” Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee’s tax-policy subcommittee, said Thursday at an event hosted by the American Council of Capital Formation. He expressed concerns that if a tax reform bill doesn’t pass this year, more companies may move overseas. 

Roskam also said he thinks tax reform is easier than replacing ObamaCare.  

“Tax policy is not orthodoxy, and there’s no defender of the status quo, and if framed up the right way, it can be incredibly aspirational and it can be incredibly transformational,” he said.

The Ways and Means Committee’s hearing was an opportunity for GOP lawmakers to highlight why they believe tax reform is critical for the economy. Republicans on the panel and business leaders who testified also talked up some aspects of the House GOP blueprint released last year, such as a provision that allows businesses to immediately deduct the full costs of their capital investments.

Democrats on the panel also said they are interested in comprehensive tax reform but argued that any bill needs to focus on the middle class and not add to the deficit. Several Democrats on the panel also were critical of the fact that the witnesses consisted of business executives who were all white men.

“I thought this was a very positive hearing,” Brady told reporters just after it ended. “Clearly there is bipartisan interest in tax reform. And what we heard from these job creators, large and small, is make sure tax reform is bold, that it is permanent and that it occurs now, because at the end of the day we want to grow paychecks and jobs and the economy.”

The Trump administration has also been trying to continue to plow forward on the tax front, even as the president and his aides have been consumed with FBI and Russia-related issues.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn held a series of meetings with lawmakers on tax reform Wednesday, as part of the outreach efforts they’ve been undertaking since the roll out of Trump’s tax plan late last month.

Mnuchin also testified before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, and he and Vice President Pence spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where their comments touched on taxes. 

“The bottom line is that President Trump’s tax plan will strengthen our economy and strengthen our reputation as the best place to invest and the best place to do business anywhere in the world,” Pence said.

Brady at said an event hosted by Politico Wednesday evening that he doesn’t think the news on the Russia investigation will take the White House’s eye off its goal of overhauling the tax code.

Mnuchin and Cohn are “laser focused” on tax reform, Brady said.