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 TrumpUS should support Ngozi for WTO Director General   Trump administration awarding M in housing grants to human trafficking survivors Deutsche Bank launches investigation into longtime banker of Trump, Kushner MORE and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerFederal government pauses Kodak loan pending probes Beirut blast raises urgent questions about America's leadership in the world Lincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' 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 TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district 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 McConnellMcConnell warns control of Senate 'could go either way' in November On The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high McConnell: Time to restart coronavirus talks 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 DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampCentrists, progressives rally around Harris pick for VP 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama MORE (N.D.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic MORE (W.Va.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocratic-linked group runs ads in Kansas GOP Senate primary Trump mocked for low attendance at rally Missouri county issues travel advisory for Lake of the Ozarks after Memorial Day parties MORE (Mo.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse Overnight Defense: Senate poised to pass defense bill with requirement to change Confederate base names | Key senator backs Germany drawdown | Space Force chooses 'semper supra' as motto Democrats call for expedited hearing for Trump's public lands nominee 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 PortmanDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Not a pretty picture: Money laundering and America's art market Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire MORE (R-Ohio) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyDunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show 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 WydenOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog report raises new questions for top Interior lawyer | Senate Democrats ask Trump to withdraw controversial public lands nominee | Border wall water use threatens endangered species, environmentalists say Watchdog report raises new questions for top Interior lawyer Trump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter 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: Five takeaways from the July jobs report Stimulus checks debate now focuses on size, eligibility Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive 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 MnuchinOn The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high McConnell: Time to restart coronavirus talks Lawmakers of color urge Democratic leadership to protect underserved communities in coronavirus talks MORE and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossBipartisan senators ask congressional leadership to extend census deadline NOAA hurricane forecast predicts record number of storms in 2020 33K laptops meant for Alabama distance learning are stuck in customs, could be held until October 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 LipinskiBottom line How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel House to pass sweeping police reform legislation 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 HimesMany Democrats want John Bolton's testimony, but Pelosi stays mum SEC's Clayton demurs on firing of Manhattan US attorney he would replace Democrats face tough questions with Bolton 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 RyanTrump slams 'rogue' Sasse after criticism of executive actions Wary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey 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 RoskamBottom line Lobbying world House votes to temporarily repeal Trump SALT deduction cap 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 HoyerLawmakers of color urge Democratic leadership to protect underserved communities in coronavirus talks The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump to Democratic negotiators: 'They know my phone number' House will be out of session for additional week in September 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 ClintonNAACP seeks to boost Black voter turnout in six states California Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden picks Harris as running mate 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.