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How the Trump tax law passed: Obstacles quickly emerge

How the Trump tax law passed: Obstacles quickly emerge
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (R-Ky.) was getting impatient.

He had tasked Sens. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' MORE (R-Tenn.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Appeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel MORE (R-Pa.) with striking a deal on the budget so that tax reform could move forward. 

After weeks of negotiation between Corker and Toomey, McConnell summoned the two members of the Budget Committee into a meeting in his Capitol office.

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“At a certain point, I think Sen. McConnell realized he probably needed to convene a meeting with just the three of us,” Toomey said. “He basically said, ‘OK guys, you’ve been at it for many weeks. We really need a resolution here. Where are we?’ ”

For the tax bill, this was a crucial moment. Republicans needed to clear a budget resolution in order to later pass tax reform with just 51 votes as opposed to the customary 60. Corker, who had repeatedly clashed with President TrumpDonald TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds MORE publicly in 2017, was a key vote in the narrowly divided Senate and a swing vote on the Budget panel.

This is part three of a seven-part series on how Trump’s tax law passed Congress and how it is playing out in the battle for Congress in the midterm 2018 election.

(Part One: Breaking the gridlock)

For years, Republicans had vowed to pass a revenue-neutral tax-cut bill, citing concern about the nation’s escalating debt levels. But in the fall of 2017, more Republicans were warming to the argument that tax laws would be paid for by economic growth. 

“I was absolutely convinced that we would not have tax reform worthy of the name if we held ourselves to that standard,” Toomey said of revenue neutrality. “If we put ourselves in that box, the math just didn’t work.” 

Toomey argued that limiting the size of tax cuts to an amount covered by eliminating various loopholes and tax breaks would produce a paltry plan. 

The proposed strategy to have a net tax cut caused problems, for Corker had said the debt was a greater threat to the United States than North Korea and that he wouldn’t back any tax cut measure if it added “one penny to the deficit.”  

“Toomey is viewed as a supply sider, and I’m viewed as a deficit hawk, and so the reason McConnell put the two of us together was, if we could get an agreement, as it relates to issues like this, it brought together two wings of the party,” said Corker. 

A deal is reached

In initial meetings, Toomey pushed for a $2.5 trillion tax cut spread over the course of 10 years, some four times larger than the 2009 economic stimulus package pushed by then-President Obama.

While Corker balked at the figure, he said he was open to leaving significant “wiggle room” to allow the process to move forward, and to paper over differences with House rules. In Corker’s thinking, the final figure in the budget resolution would seem inflated because it wouldn’t account for the same level of economic growth that Republicans believed would follow the tax cuts, nor expected policy changes that weren’t yet put into law.

In a meeting with McConnell and Toomey, Corker agreed to a $1.5 trillion deficit allowance in the budget resolution.

Corker said he was concerned that if the GOP conference agreed to a revenue-negative tax bill there would be tremendous pressure to lower rates without reforming the code by broadening the base and wiping out preferences. 

(Part Two: Dealing with a health care hangover)

Toomey made a proposal to Corker, who announced in September 2017 that he would not be seeking reelection. 

“Why don’t you vote for the budget resolution because that’s the mechanism that we need to give us reconciliation instructions,” he said to his colleague. “If the Finance Committee doesn’t produce the product that you want, you can vote against it.”

Corker replied, “I absolutely will [vote ‘no’] if you guys take the easy way out and just slash rates.” 

Toomey acknowledged that GOP leaders wanted to finish the tax bill by the end of 2017 so that voters would see its benefits in the upcoming midterm election year. 

“That was part of it,” Toomey said.

But he added there was also concern that if the package hung out there too long, it would collapse under its own weight. 

“Probably the bigger part, honestly, was just the idea that a very big, sweeping, ambitious piece of legislation that affects everyone, the longer it delays and hangs out there, the more people start tearing it apart, taking potshots,” he said. “It becomes harder to get it done the longer it lingers.”

Corker voted for the resolution in the Budget Committee and the measure cleared the panel, 12-11. 

House Republicans from blue states revolt

House Republican leaders faced a huge challenge.

They needed to get members of their caucus from blue states on board with a tax bill that would take aim at a tax break popular with their constituents. 

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices MORE’s (R-Wis.) 2016 blueprint proposed completely eliminating the state and local tax (SALT) deduction. Doing so would help raise revenue that could be used to lower tax rates. And many Republicans view the deduction as subsidizing high state taxes in Democratic areas.

But there are still a number of GOP House members in states where taxpayers rely on the deduction, such as New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois. And some of those lawmakers, especially those facing tough reelection races, put up a fight.

Tensions escalated as the House prepared to vote on a budget resolution. When the House voted on the Senate’s budget resolution during the negotiations over SALT, almost every Republican from New York and New Jersey voted against it.

Also joining the fight to preserve SALT were Democratic lawmakers, state and local politicians — such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who brought up the issue with Trump before his inauguration — and groups in the housing sector.

A senior Trump administration official said there was “a lot of friction with moderates in the Northeast. With SALT, it was a full-court press.”

“The SALT piece was dicey,” another administration official said. 

Discussions get ‘heated’

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyGrowing number of lawmakers test positive for COVID-19 after Capitol siege Overnight Health Care: US sets record for daily COVID-19 deaths with over 3,800 | Hospitals say vaccinations should be moving faster | Brazilian health officials say Chinese COVID vaccine 78 percent effective The Hill's Morning Report - A dark day as Trump embraces 'special' rioters MORE (R-Texas), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration Biden urges Americans to join together in appeal for unity MORE (R-Calif.) and House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear Scalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration House GOP lawmaker: Trump 'put all of our lives at risk' MORE (R-La.) held a slew of meetings with GOP lawmakers from high-tax states. 

“Some of them were a little heated, and I think those members wanted to make a point that this is a problem that had to be addressed,” Scalise said.

Brady called the meetings “constructive.”

“Lawmakers from states that tax so heavily, they recognize their states just brutally tax families and businesses,” he said. “But they wanted to make sure that their states and communities benefit from tax reform as well.”

Besides Brady, Scalise and McCarthy, there were others who were also instrumental in keeping enough SALT Republicans on board, such as Rep. Tom ReedTom ReedGOP senators praise Biden's inauguration speech The Hill's 12:30 Report: House moves toward second impeachment LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to impeach Trump after Capitol insurrection MORE, a Ways and Means member from New York, and Rep. Peter Roskam Peter James RoskamPostcards become unlikely tool in effort to oust Trump Bottom line Lobbying world MORE (R-Ill.), who at the time was chairman of the Ways and Means tax-policy subcommittee. 

Reed, a co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, engaged in shuttle diplomacy as he shuffled back and forth between the offices of leadership, Brady and fellow SALT-area lawmakers.

Reed initially tried to convince leadership to replace the deduction with a tax credit. But GOP leaders said their hands were tied because of the tax framework outlined in Ryan’s “Better Way” agenda, which completely eliminated SALT.

“Politically, it’s not going to fly,” McCarthy told Reed. 

Then the negotiating became all about the number for the deduction, with Reed fighting for a cap as high as $20,000. Eventually, House negotiators settled on a $10,000 deduction for just property taxes. That was revised to a $10,000 cap on the whole SALT deduction during the conference committee discussions to appease Republican lawmakers in California, where property taxes aren’t very high but income taxes are.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinPence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden Treasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' Treasury Department sanctions inner circle of Russian agent Derkach for election interference MORE said there were “lots of tweaks to that provision ... Maintaining the $10,000 deduction was critical.”

With a deal struck, the Trump White House and House GOP leaders stepped up their whipping operation. Administration officials, including Trump, Vice President Pence, Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Gary CohnGary David CohnOn The Money: Wall Street zeros in on Georgia runoffs | Seven states sue regulator over 'true lender' rule on interest rates | 2021 deficit on track to reach .3 trillion Former Trump economic aide Gary Cohn joins IBM The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience MORE and White House adviser Ivanka TrumpIvanka TrumpTrump extended Secret Service protection for family members in final days in office: report Trump expected to pardon Bannon: reports Author Ryan Girdusky: Ivanka Trump to face challenges in potential Senate run against Rubio MORE urged members from SALT states to vote “yes.” Mnuchin and Ivanka Trump boarded an Amtrak train to appear with Rep. Tom MacArthurThomas (Tom) Charles MacArthurChamber-backed Democrats embrace endorsements in final stretch Republican David Richter wins NJ primary in race to challenge Rep. Andy Kim What to watch in New Jersey's primaries on Tuesday MORE (R-N.J.) in his district. 

McCarthy played a key role in holding the California delegation together. Using his weekly meetings with GOP members from the Golden State to discuss challenges, he was able to walk lawmakers through what he thought they could get. 

“Kevin McCarthy did yeoman’s work with California members on that issue, keeping them calm and focused on the bigger prize,” Reed said.

Using data collected from the IRS, GOP leaders were able to show members how different income levels would be affected. In the end, leaders told their members, your constituents will put more money in their pockets. 

McCarthy said seeing the data eased the majority of SALT members’ concerns and helped arm them with facts ahead of town hall meetings. 

On the day of the final House vote in December, GOP leaders weren’t sweating. Unlike in the Senate, they had more margin for error and the bill comfortably cleared the lower chamber. A dozen GOP House members voted against the tax bill, with 11 of them from New York, New Jersey and California. 

Members of The Hill’s staff who have worked on this tax reform series over the past several months are Alexander Bolton, Juliegrace Brufke, Timothy Cama, Jordain Carney, Bob Cusack, Niv Elis, Naomi Jagoda, Mike Lillis, Peter Sullivan, Megan R. Wilson and Melanie Zanona.

Thursday: Bipartisanship not an ingredient