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How the Trump tax law passed: Bipartisanship wasn't an ingredient

How the Trump tax law passed: Bipartisanship wasn't an ingredient
© Greg Nash

 

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) was bullish about a bipartisan deal.

The Texas Democrat, a leader of the conservative-leaning Blue Dogs, was among just seven bipartisan lawmakers invited last fall to dine at the home of Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpLincoln Project attorney on billboards lawsuit threat: 'Please peddle your scare tactics elsewhere' Biden pushes back on Trump: 'Crass' to go after political rival's children Lawyers for Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner threaten to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards MORE and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerLincoln Project attorney on billboards lawsuit threat: 'Please peddle your scare tactics elsewhere' Biden pushes back on Trump: 'Crass' to go after political rival's children Lawyers for Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner threaten to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards MORE, where tax reform was the topic on the menu.

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It was the type of intimate political gathering where Washington insiders hash out deals outside the glare of the media and the roar of more partisan colleagues, and Cuellar was hoping the power couple would prove to be allies in the Blue Dogs’ effort to exert some Democratic sway over the Republicans’ emerging tax bill.

“We said, ‘Hey, listen, we want to work, but we want to have a say-so.’ And they said, ‘Well, what say-so do you want?’ " Cuellar recalled.

Cuellar laid out several policy requests, then added a logistical one: “We still want to look at the bill before it’s filed," he recalled nine months after that October dinner in the historic Waddy Wood mansion Ivanka Trump and Kushner are renting — just a stone’s throw from former President Obama — in the tony Kalorama neighborhood of Northwest D.C.

It wasn’t to be.

Within a month, Republicans had released their preferred tax overhaul without any Democratic input, ignoring the Blue Dogs’ wish list — including an insistence on deficit neutrality, legislative transparency and a prioritization of tax cuts for the middle class — and dashing any chance the package had of attracting even a single Democratic vote.

“We were never given that opportunity to actually have a say-so,” Cuellar lamented in July. “At the end, basically they said, ‘Here’s a bill, are you for it or against it?’ ”

The last sweeping overhaul of the tax code occurred in 1986 with a divided government: Republicans controlled the White House and the Senate, while Democrats ran the House.

The Republican outreach to Democrats was never really serious. With control of Congress and the White House, the GOP had the votes to ram a bill through to President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE’s desk.

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

 

'A different era'

In January 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Trump looms over Ernst's tough reelection fight in Iowa Democratic senator votes against advancing Amy Coney Barrett nomination while wearing RBG mask MORE (R-Ky.) said the bipartisanship of the 1980s would not be reemerging on tax cuts: It’s “a different era,” he said.

“The only way you can achieve success in an environment like now, where there’s not much bipartisanship, is for us to have our act together and to work out our differences among ourselves,” McConnell told The Hill at the time.

Senate Republicans thought they might secure “yes” votes from a few centrist Democrats up for reelection in red states, including Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle MORE (N.D.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  Susan Collins and the American legacy Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (W.Va.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears Fox's Bongino, MSNBC's McCaskill trade blows over Trump ride: 'You epic piece of garbage' MORE (Mo.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  Interior says Pendley to remain at BLM despite 'dramatic tweets' from Democrats Overnight Energy: Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals | Ex-EPA official claims retaliation in lawsuit | Dems seek to uphold ruling ousting Pendley MORE (Mont.). But not one Democrat in Congress backed the tax package. These five senators declined to talk to The Hill about their votes.

Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham wants to review ActBlue's source of small-dollar contributions GOP blocks Schumer effort to adjourn Senate until after election Candymakers meet virtually with lawmakers for annual fly-in, discuss Halloween safety MORE (R-Ohio) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (R-Pa.), who played major roles in crafting the tax package, each spoke with Manchin.

Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, had dinner with Manchin and Heitkamp in mid-October.

But once Republicans decided to scrap ObamaCare's individual mandate, “there was no chance whatsoever of getting any Democrats," Toomey said.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing House Democrats slam FCC chairman over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump MORE (D-Ore.), the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, said Republican efforts to work with Democrats were a complete charade.

Wyden recalled a meeting at the White House with five other Senate Democrats.

“The president has a way of telling everybody in the room exactly what they want to hear, and the meeting was otherwise light on details. But he did make a point to threaten these five Democrats, who all came from states he won in 2016, that he wouldn’t want to be in their shoes if they did not support him on taxes,” Wyden said.

Wyden, who previously worked with Republicans on health care and tax reform, said the GOP “never once gave [bipartisanship] a chance.”

 

Blue Dogs huddle with President Trump

For Cuellar and the House Blue Dogs, the Republican proposal marked the dead end of a long road of talks with Republican leaders in Congress, the White House and the business community in optimistic search of a bipartisan breakthrough. Even before President Trump was sworn in, the Blue Dogs had met twice with House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyOn The Money: GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag | Company layoffs mount as pandemic heads into fall | Initial jobless claims drop to 837,000 GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag The Hill's Morning Report - Fight night: Trump, Biden hurl insults in nasty debate MORE (R-Texas), a key architect of the tax bill, and reached out to Marc Short, Trump’s congressional liaison, who huddled with them in April 2017.

Similar meetings followed in subsequent months with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinPelosi dismisses talk of White House compromise on stimulus: They 'keep moving the goal post' Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day Hillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' MORE and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossIt's time to reckon with space junk Census Bureau to hold count through end of October Judge begins contempt proceedings for Wilbur Ross over allegedly defying census order MORE. In September 2017, the group won the ear of Trump at the White House, where Cuellar emerged with a gleeful report that the president was vowing to cut taxes for the middle class but not the wealthy — a promise that was ultimately not kept.

Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiHouse votes to condemn alleged hysterectomies on migrant women Five things we learned from this year's primaries Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates MORE (D-Ill.), another leader of the Blue Dogs, said he got the sense when his group met with administration officials in June 2017 that the White House didn’t think they could get a tax bill that would pass the Senate with 60 votes.

“They essentially said, 'We’d love this to be bipartisan; we’re trying to figure out where we get to 60 in the Senate,' ” he said. “And the implication was if they can’t figure out how to get to 60 … they’d go with reconciliation.”

Members of the New Democrats — another bloc of House lawmakers long interested in a tax-code overhaul — also huddled several times with Brady and the Republicans in search of bipartisan cooperation. But Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesOvernight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy House panel urges intelligence community to step up science and technology efforts Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones MORE (D-Conn.), chairman of the group, said the meetings were merely “superficial exchanges” designed to lend a bipartisan air to a process that was anything but.

Many Democrats interviewed for this story suggested that Brady was interested in a bipartisan agreement but was simply taking marching orders from Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (Wis.) and other GOP leaders who intended to jam a partisan bill through Congress from the earliest stages of the process.

It's a theory Brady quickly rejects.

“Everyone who knows me knows that wouldn’t work anyway,” he said.

He said he met repeatedly with Democrats, asked them about their priorities for a tax-code overhaul, and found that Democrats and Republicans had similar goals.

“It became clear that [Minority] Leader [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] was not going to let them engage, in my view, in a positive way in tax reform,” Brady said. “Nonetheless, individually, we kept listening to members.”

Yet in the eyes of many Democrats who also met with Brady and other Republican tax leaders months ahead of the bill’s release, the cake was baked from the start — even at the committee level.

In April 2017, Brady called Ways and Means Democrats to the committee’s library in the Longworth Office Building to lay out the contours of the tax debate. He and Rep. Peter Roskam Peter James RoskamPostcards become unlikely tool in effort to oust Trump Bottom line Lobbying world MORE (Ill.), who headed the committee’s tax policy subpanel in 2017, were the only two Republicans in attendance. The meeting was short and, according to Democrats, it didn’t go well.

“They didn’t ask for much input at all. They were just basically telling us what was going to be happening, which kind of pretty quickly diminished our thoughts about any bipartisanship,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a committee member who attended. “[Brady] made a very clear statement to us that their intention was to use reconciliation. And that said to us right away that they weren’t looking for a single Democratic vote.”

Among the top Democratic brass, there was even less inclusion, according to party leaders.

House Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerTop Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief This week: Coronavirus complicates Senate's Supreme Court fight MORE (D-Md.) hammered the Republicans for bringing their bill to the floor in December “without any substantive hearings, no input from Democrats or the American people and apparently no proofreading.”

“Republicans never engaged Leader Pelosi,” Henry Connelly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said in an email.

In past decades, sweeping legislation was passed on a bipartisan basis, but times have changed.

 

ObamaCare/tax cut comparison

Democrats have repeatedly contrasted the GOP’s tax cuts approach with their own efforts to enact ObamaCare in 2009 and 2010, when five different committees between the two chambers held dozens of hearings and considered hundreds of amendments — many offered by Republicans — in cobbling together the legislation, which became law in March 2010. No Republican supported the final bill.

GOP officials counter that there were a slew of last-second changes to the Affordable Care Act that few, if any lawmaker, had the chance to read before their votes.

Roskam said some Democrats didn’t want the high earners to receive any relief in the tax bill, adding that politics prevented Democrats from supporting legislation backed by Trump.

“There were some Democrats who said to me, 'If Donald Trump is for this bill, I have to be against it based on my politics at home.' Well, that’s a category that we can’t satisfy,” said Roskam, who hails from a district Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report MORE won in 2016 and is a target of Democrats this fall.

In the Senate, all Democratic members except Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnelly sent GOP leaders and Trump a letter in August 2017 laying out three prerequisites to bipartisan tax reform: it should not cut taxes for the top 1 percent; it should move through regular order instead of reconciliation; and it can’t add to the deficit.

Republicans say the demands in the letter made it hard to engage with Democrats, with Toomey calling them a "non-starter."

"From my reading of it, when you lay out those three preconditions, you are clearly, clearly expressing a refusal to work with Republicans on tax reform," he said.

Wyden said the goals of the letter were for Democrats to "show a united, bipartisan front" and to outline the caucus's key priorities before negotiations started.

He said that Republican reaction to the letter "was further proof that Republicans were always planning to go it alone on taxes with Trump in the Oval Office."

Trump last year traveled to states he carried in 2016 with Democratic senators in an effort to convince some red-state Democrats to back his tax-cut efforts. Heitkamp and Donnelly even attended his events in their home states.

Now, Trump is reminding voters that the two Democrats voted “no.”

Trump, who once considered Heitkamp for the post of Agriculture secretary, has dubbed her “a liberal” on the campaign trail. Donnelly, for his part, has been called a "swamp person."

 

Friday: GOP adds sweeteners

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.