Trump playing active role in push to reform tax code
President Trump met with key Republican lawmakers and administration officials on Tuesday to focus on a tax plan, which is increasingly at risk of being overwhelmed by a growing list of legislative priorities.
The president’s huddle with congressional tax writers was overshadowed by his decision to end an Obama-era program shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation, which added another item to a crowded fall agenda.
But Trump also gave attention to what he hopes will be the centerpiece of his economic agenda, stressing a desire to streamline the tax code, provide tax relief for the middle class and improve U.S. economic competitiveness.
“We must make the tax code as simple as possible,” he said before the meeting. “It’s extremely complex, it’s not fair, and it’s extremely hard to understand.”
He will look to build momentum behind the tax push Wednesday, traveling to friendly turf in North Dakota to deliver a speech plugging his proposal.
All three members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation are traveling with Trump on Air Force One, including Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, whom Trump will pressure to get behind the package.
He plans to deliver a pointed reminder to Heitkamp that President Ronald Reagan passed a tax overhaul in 1986 with the support of Democratic lawmakers, “including a Democratic senator from the great state of North Dakota.”
“If Democrats continue their obstruction, if they don’t want to bring back your jobs, raise your pay and help America win, the voters should deliver a clear message: Do your job to deliver for America, or find a new job,” Trump plans to say, according to an excerpt read by a White House official.
The moves are meant to signal the effort is entering a new stage and that the president is ramping up his personal involvement in a bid to secure his first major legislative victory.
The White House meeting marks the first time that Trump has joined in a meeting of the so-called Big Six: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.
Brady told reporters after the meeting that the visit was about updating Trump on the progress lawmakers are making in creating tax legislation. He declined to discuss specifics of the conversation but added that GOP lawmakers and administration officials are “all on the same page for delivering tax reform this year.”
Tensions between Trump and several members of the group erupted over the August recess, potentially complicating his tax-reform push.
Trump attacked McConnell after the Senate leader said the president had “excessive expectations” about how quickly legislation can move, while Cohn publicly criticized the president’s response to white supremacist violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., in early August.
The president introduced Cohn before Tuesday’s meeting, after failing to mention him at a policy speech last week. Mnuchin and Cohn both plan to travel with Trump to his speech Wednesday.
Work on the tax plan has continued in the background; the Big Six has met regularly since the beginning of the year to find consensus on various elements of tax reform. In July, the group released a statement laying out shared principles and announcing that a tax bill would not include a “border-adjustment” provision to tax imports and exempt exports.
Still, many details have yet to be hammered out, and critics dismissed Tuesday’s meeting as another photo opportunity that was short on specifics. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that tax reform is off to a “very bad start” because the meeting only included Republican lawmakers.
Trump plans to speak about the need for tax reform, but a White House official said he will refrain from weighing in on specifics “out of respect for the regular order process” in Congress.
Mnuchin has said more details would be released in the coming weeks, and the task of writing legislation is being left to the Ways and Means and Finance committees.
By using his bully pulpit to advance tax reform, Trump is looking to avoid a mistake his White House made in its failed effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare.
The Big Six meeting and North Dakota speech follow the launch of Trump’s efforts to sell tax reform last week with a speech in Missouri. He also wrote an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over the weekend, arguing that the current “self-destructive tax code costs Americans millions of jobs, trillions of dollars and billions of hours spent on compliance and paperwork.”
In the Missouri speech, Trump repeatedly put pressure on Congress to pass tax legislation, saying he doesn’t “want to be disappointed by Congress.”
Congressional Republicans also have a strong desire to pass tax-reform legislation, but the number of pressing issues on its agenda could deprive them of the time needed to pass legislation on such a complex issue.
Lawmakers must find a way to raise the debt limit and fund the federal government by the end of September, which has just 12 legislative days, or risk a debt default or shutdown. They’re also under pressure to quickly pass a package of relief funding for areas affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Trump’s decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has added another item to Congress’s full plate, because lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they want a legislative solution to help young undocumented immigrants who have benefited from the program.
That move further riled Democrats, but Trump is still hoping he can win some of their votes for his tax-reform plan.
He is specifically pressuring Democratic senators who are vulnerable in the 2018 midterm elections to get behind his tax efforts. Missouri is home to Sen. Claire McCaskill, while North Dakota is home to Heitkamp — both of whom face elections next year in states that Trump won.
Heitkamp is one of three Democratic senators — along with Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — who did not sign a letter last month expressing opposition to any plan that cuts taxes for those in the top 1 percent of income, adds to the deficit or is passed through reconciliation.
She said in a statement Friday that she’s looking forward to Trump’s speech and hopes that Republicans and Democrats can work together to overhaul the tax code.
“Too often, when North Dakota businesses and families want to plan for the future, our tax code leaves them twisting in the wind,” she said. “That lack of certainty shuts our communities out of important investments that can create jobs, better schools and neighborhoods for our kids, and stronger local economies.”
“And it’s why I’ve been pushing for both sides of the aisle to work together in Congress toward permanent, comprehensive solutions that will do away with loopholes and handouts for special interests and instead promote our small businesses, farm economy and energy industries with the fiscally responsible reforms they need to grow and expand.”
A White House official said statements like that “give us optimism” that she could get behind its plan.
Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs at the conservative Club for Growth, said it’s important for Trump to pressure Heitkamp and that it is also smart for him to urge “liberal Republicans” to back his agenda.
The Club for Growth and other right-leaning groups have been working to mobilize the public on tax reform, and Roth said he’s pleased that Trump is drawing attention to the topic.
“I love that President Trump is focused on this issue. I love that he’s traveling the country,” he said. “We think that pro-growth tax reform is desperately needed and it’s great to see that the president is pushing hard for it.”