How the Trump tax law passed: The final stretch

How the Trump tax law passed: The final stretch
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Republicans had little room for error to get a tax bill through the Senate. With a narrow majority, the GOP had to minimize defections.

From the start, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchHatch warns 'dangerous' idea of court packing could hurt religious liberty Former Democratic aide pleads guilty to doxing GOP senators attending Kavanaugh hearing How do we prevent viral live streaming of New Zealand-style violence? MORE (R-Utah) wanted many Republicans participating in the effort and sought to make the process member-driven rather than leadership-driven.

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In late 2016, Hatch approached Finance Committee members Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senator wears shirt honoring Otto Warmbier at Korean DMZ On The Money: Conservatives rally behind Moore for Fed | White House interviewing other candidates | Trump, Dems spar on Tax Day | Budget watchdogs bemoan 'debt denialism' The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Ohio), Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race MORE (R-Pa.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP senators dismiss Booker reparations proposal On The Money — Presented by Job Creators Network — GOP senators urge Trump not to nominate Cain | Treasury expected to miss Dem deadline on Trump tax returns | Party divisions force Dems to scrap budget vote | House passes IRS reform bill GOP senators urge Trump not to pick Cain for Fed MORE (R-S.C.) and tasked them with helping to come up with the outlines of legislation. At a later point, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTelehealth is calling — will Congress pick up? GOP grows tired of being blindsided by Trump Hillicon Valley: Assange faces US charges after arrest | Trump says WikiLeaks 'not my thing' | Uber officially files to go public | Bezos challenges retail rivals on wages | Kremlin tightens its control over internet MORE (R-S.D.) also became part of the core group.

Each of the “core four” had different backgrounds and focused on different areas of the tax code. They also helped to explain the legislation to others in the conference.

“We also were given the opportunity to talk to our cohorts or other senators about what they wanted to see in tax reform and just became conduits to help decide what people were looking for in this tax-reform package,” Scott said.

This is the final installment of a seven-part series on how President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE's tax law passed Congress and how it is playing out in the battle for Congress in the 2018 midterm election.

(Part One: Breaking the gridlock)

Scott, the newest of the four to the Senate, focused on the individual tax code. Portman, who has good relationships with moderates, was tasked with the international tax code. Toomey, a former president of the conservative Club for Growth, homed in on corporations. Thune, a member of Senate GOP leadership, worked on noncorporate businesses known as pass-throughs.

Hatch also sought feedback from others on the Finance Committee. And he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Dem says marijuana banking bill will get House vote this spring MORE (R-Ky.) worked with key players in the House and the Trump administration to produce a joint framework that would guide the drafting process.

“I wanted them all to feel a part of this,” Hatch said. “I didn’t want any one person taking full credit for what we ultimately did.”

Hatch spoke favorably of President Trump and said that the president was open to his suggestions.

Hatch also praised two key administration officials: Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: House Dem says marijuana banking bill will get vote in spring | Buttigieg joins striking Stop & Shop workers | US home construction slips in March | Uber gets B investment for self-driving cars Former Sears holding company sues ex-CEO, Mnuchin and others over 'asset stripping' On The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost MORE and then-National Economic Council Director Gary CohnGary David CohnTrump frustrated with aides who talked to Mueller Hillicon Valley: White House rejects Dem request for AT&T merger docs | Apple, Qualcomm end massive court fight | Ecuador says it faced 40M cyberattacks after Assange arrest | SpaceX wins NASA contract to fly craft into asteroid White House rejects House Dems' request for documents on AT&T-Time Warner merger MORE.

Hatch said that when Mnuchin first started, he was worried that the Treasury secretary didn’t know much about taxes. But “gradually, he became a master of the tax code.”

“I don’t think people give Gary Cohn the credit that I would,” Hatch said. “I think he’s a great asset. He’s a tremendous student of the tax code and was very, very helpful throughout this process.”

 

Trump heads to Asia

In November 2017, Trump embarked on an 11-day trip to Asia just as tax reform was gaining momentum. Administration officials were worried about losing their top spokesman for nearly two weeks.

But Trump kept in touch, getting updates and making decisions from abroad.

Cohn attended a Nov. 8 meeting of the Core Four members of the Senate Finance Committee — Portman, Toomey, Thune and Scott — to get an update on the legislation they were drafting.

The lawmakers updated him on a couple proposals that they worried might get rejected by Trump, notably the idea of delaying the implementation of the corporate rate cut by one year in order to reduce its budgetary impact.

“They brief Cohn and say, ‘These are all the things we decided,’ ” said a Republican aide familiar with the discussion.

Cohn ducked into Hatch’s private conference room and called the president, who was in his hotel room in Beijing.

After the call ended, “Cohn comes back and says, ‘Alright, I’ve talked to the big guy,’ ” the aide added.

Cohn indicated to the senators that Trump could live with the changes, even though he wasn’t thrilled about some of them.

As Cohn ticked off key provisions such as the corporate rate, the number of individual brackets and other details, he added commentary on Trump’s thoughts.

Trump also relayed to Senate Republican negotiators that he wanted to include the repeal of ObamaCare’s individual mandate if it would enable Congress to implement that corporate rate cut in the first year of the reform, according to the GOP aide.  

The lawmakers breathed a sigh of relief. With the president’s support, they could move to the next step.

 

Different versions of the bill

The Finance Committee released its initial proposal hours after the House Ways and Means Committee voted on its bill. The two measures differed in certain key areas.

The House bill had four individual income tax rates, while the Senate bill had seven. Senators decided to release legislation with more tax brackets in an effort to prevent people from seeing tax increases.

At the end of a four-day markup, the Finance Committee advanced their bill on a party-line vote. But a big challenge lay ahead: getting GOP senators off the committee with various requests and concerns to get on board.

(Part Two: Dealing with a health care hangover)

Of the three Senate Republicans who voted to kill the ObamaCare repeal proposal, two were fairly easy “yes” votes for the tax bill. Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiCain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America MORE (R-Alaska) got a longtime priority of hers included in the tax bill — allowing drilling in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders Juan Williams: The high price of working for Trump MORE (R-Ariz.), who opposed the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts and bemoaned the lack of regular order on repealing ObamaCare, appreciated that the tax bill got a markup in the Finance Committee. McCain died in August at the age of 81.

The third “no” vote on health care, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins: Mueller report includes 'an unflattering portrayal' of Trump GOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? MORE (R-Maine), secured a number of specific provisions she wanted added to the bill — such as matching the House provision to provide a $10,000 property tax deduction. She also got a commitment from leadership for a vote on legislation to stabilize ObamaCare, though that floor vote never materialized.

Some lawmakers used bold tactics to draw attention to their priorities. While the markup was still underway, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying The Hill's Morning Report — Category 5 Mueller storm to hit today GOP senators double down on demand for Clinton email probe documents MORE (Wis.) became the first Senate Republican to say he’d vote against the bill unless changes were made.

Johnson thought the pass-through deduction wasn’t generous enough, and that it would result in corporations having a significantly lower effective tax rate than other types of businesses.

At Senate Republicans’ lunches following the release of the bill, Johnson showed lawmakers charts he developed showing that the bill would lead to pass-throughs converting to corporations, resulting in lost revenue to the federal government.

“They got sick of having me talk about my charts in Senate lunches,” he said.

In the following days, including over Thanksgiving, Johnson had a lot of phone calls with others about a potential accommodation.

Among those he spoke to about his concerns was Trump, who was sympathetic but told him to focus on the big picture.

(Part Three: Obstacles quickly emerge)

After Thanksgiving, Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David Daines Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Main Street businesses need permanent tax relief to grow Overnight Energy: Bernhardt confirmed as Interior chief | Dems probing if EPA officials broke ethics rules | Senators offer bipartisan carbon capture bill MORE (R-Mont.) announced that he decided to join Johnson in threatening to vote against the bill unless the pass-through deduction was made more generous.

Johnson said Daines’s support on pass-throughs was “crucial.”

“I needed an ally,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

GOP leaders eventually struck a deal with Johnson and Daines.

Meanwhile, other GOP senators such as Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (Tenn.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Flake opens up about threats against him and his family MORE (Ariz.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordHow Republicans are battling judicial obstructionism today GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump GOP to go 'nuclear' with rules change for Trump nominations MORE (Okla.) were concerned about the bill’s impact on the deficit.

Members of the administration, notably Mnuchin, had promised time and time again that the tax cuts would pay for themselves because they would stimulate economic growth. Deficit hawks had been working on trying to get a “trigger” included in the bill that would stipulate that the tax cuts would be rolled back in the event that rosier projections for economic growth didn’t come to fruition.

The trigger idea didn’t set with many outside conservatives. But it was officially killed by a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian who said it wouldn’t work under the rules of the chamber. Corker ended up voting against the Senate bill, the only Republican to do so. He would wrestle with how to vote on the final measure.

In Corker’s telling, he kept his options open for voting “yes” on the final bill and told Trump as much in a phone call.

Two days later, after Trump headlined a New York fundraiser, Corker pitched him a possible solution: Raise the corporate rate just a touch, enough to dampen the deficit problems.

But in the aftermath of the New York fundraiser, Trump seemed unsure.

“Apparently a bunch of his friends were raising pain about the top rate, and apparently the state and local deduction. He apparently caught some hell,” Corker said.

The final bill had a higher corporate rate than the Senate measure, and a lower top individual rate. Corker voted for the final bill.

Thune likened the process of getting the tax bill through the Senate to a roller coaster.

“There’s a real delicate balance because you have our moderates and our real conservatives sort-of just hanging there with really different issues,” he said.

One weekend in December, Thune went to New York with his wife for an event and spent most of the time on his phone working to iron out the issues.

He remembered “my wife walking into a store shopping and being outside on the phone. Or going to my fundraising lunch and spending the whole time outside talking on the phone.”

 

The hat pledge

The nearly 200-page tax bill began with just one number: 24.

In early 2016, a few months after Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyTreasury to miss Dem deadline for Trump tax returns Treasury expected to miss Dem deadline on Trump tax returns Mnuchin tells Congress it's 'premature' to talk about Trump tax returns decision MORE (R-Texas) took the helm of the Ways and Means Committee but before the GOP knew who would win the White House, Brady doled out navy blue hats emblazoned with the number “24,” the number of Republican lawmakers on the panel.

The Texas Republican, a former college baseball player and big fan of the sport, asked his tax writers to each sign a hat with a silver sharpie as a symbol of their commitment to tax reform.

“Listen, we’ve got a team, and we’re going to get this done,” Brady said, according to Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyPermanence for CBMTRA is a small business win across America House, Senate tax-writers offer bipartisan bill to modernize IRS The fear of colorectal cancer as a springboard for change MORE (R-Pa.).

Brady thought that making a pledge with the hats would be a good way to help lawmakers stick to their goal.

“I’ve spent a lifetime in sports, growing up in South Dakota in a relatively small town, and I learned that when you personally commit to a goal — especially big goals, almost unreachable goals — it’s the only way you can achieve them,” he said.

The committee members locked the hats away in a glass case in Brady’s office in the Capitol, making a pledge to not open the case until they fulfilled their mission.

“Okay, this is real now,” Rep. Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedLawmakers offer bipartisan resolution highlighting sexual assault prevention GOP lawmaker: Battle over Trump tax returns 'is going to have to be litigated' Overnight Health Care: Lawmakers get deal to advance long-stalled drug pricing bill | House votes to condemn Trump's anti-ObamaCare push | Eight House Republicans join with Dems | Trump officials approve Medicaid expansion in Maine MORE (R-N.Y.) recalled thinking at the time.

But given the obstacles to a big tax bill passing, there was some skepticism that the hats would ever be unlocked.

“Everybody thought, maybe in 100 years,” said Rep. Peter Roskam Peter James RoskamBlue states angry over SALT cap should give fiscal sobriety a try Illinois Dems offer bill to raise SALT deduction cap Illinois New Members 2019 MORE (R-Ill.).

In the following months, the Ways and Means Republicans would glance at the hats as they plowed through the complicated and often challenging task before them.

“There were some late nights here and days where we looked at those hats sitting in those cabinets,” Brady said.

(Part Four: Bipartisanship wasn't an ingredient)

The hats marked a kick off of the process under Brady. The effort, though, was years in the making, Republicans said, pointing to the work of former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

“You can never forget the two years that we spent with Chairman Camp, going through a bill that ultimately became the first H.R. 1 as he filed it,” said Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciGOP rep: If Mueller had found collusion, ‘investigation would have wrapped up very quickly’ House Ethics Committee extends probe into Renacci Sherrod Brown says he has 'no real timetable' for deciding on 2020 presidential run MORE (R-Ohio). “That was really the starting point.”

Camp retired from Congress at the end of 2014. He was succeeded as Ways and Means Committee Chairman by Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Wis.), who shared Camp’s interest in a tax code rewrite. In the fall of 2015, Ryan became Speaker and Brady took over as committee chairman.

 

Working on tax reform from the hospital

House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph Scalise20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform GOP to launch discharge petition on anti-BDS measure This week: Democrats revive net neutrality fight MORE (R-La.) was still in the hospital recovering from his injuries after being shot during a baseball practice when he began receiving phone calls from President Trump about tax reform.

"[Trump] called me from the hospital a few times … we would eventually get around to talking about tax reform. He was excited about it, and I was excited about it,” Scalise told The Hill. “I wanted to get out of the hospital for a lot of reasons. One was to go home and see my family, but another was to work on big things and this was a big thing.”

His doctors initially expressed concern about Scalise pushing himself too hard.

“They saw staff coming in and they were like, 'You need to be focused on your recovery.' And I said, 'I spend three hours a day doing physical therapy and rehab and then I'm just laying in the bed watching ESPN," Scalise said with a laugh. "And they were skeptical at first and then they realized, ‘Wait a minute he's actually more excited after they leave than before.’ ”

During his first week back at the Capitol in late-September, Scalise started working on whipping the budget needed to pass the legislation through reconciliation with then-House Budget Committee Chairman Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackLamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Juan Williams: The GOP's worsening problem with women How to reform the federal electric vehicle tax credit MORE (R-Tenn.). One week later, the House passed the measure paving the way for Republicans to overhaul the tax code with just 51 votes in the Senate.

(Part Five: GOP adds sweeteners)

But the tax bill’s path to passage encountered many bumps last fall.

Proposed changes to the state and local tax (SALT) deduction had members from high-tax states concerned their constituents would be negatively affected by the bill.

“SALT was the most complicated to address, because it was a real big change policy, it was the right change policy,” he said.

The SALT provisions were modified, paving the way for the House to clear the bill.

 

Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpA Trump visit to Africa is important — and carries some urgency On The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job MORE’s role

Several senior administration officials said Ivanka Trump played a major role in passing tax reform. She was publicly known for pushing for the child tax credit, though she was involved in helping round up key votes.

She worked closely with Corker and Collins, who both ended up voting for the final measure. Ivanka Trump smoothed over differences that Corker had with her father, seeking to form a productive relationship with the retiring senator.

When Ivanka Trump traveled to Maine, Collins met her at the airport. And while traveling with Collins in the state, President Trump called his daughter, who put Collins on the phone to talk about tax reform.

Ivanka Trump also held more than 70 meetings and/or dinners with members of Congress, according to an administration document.

"Obviously the child tax credit was very important to me,” Ivanka Trump told The Hill, “but I helped craft and garner support for the plan as a whole."

She is quick to credit others in the administration: "It was a strong, unbelievable team effort."

Many Trump administration officials were instrumental in pushing the bill to passage, including Mnuchin, Cohn, Vice President Pence, Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossHouse chairman threatens to find Justice official in contempt of Congress DOJ rejects Oversight subpoena unless agency lawyer is permitted to attend Third judge blocks citizenship question from 2020 census MORE, Small Business Administrator Linda McMahonLinda Marie McMahonFormer White House aide who mocked McCain joins pro-Trump super PAC Trump Cabinet down to three women amid administration turnover The Hill's Morning Report - Trump cleaning house on border security MORE and Office and Management Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump frustrated with aides who talked to Mueller The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE, among others.

At the staff level, Shahira Knight — who now heads the White House office of legislative affairs — was called indispensable throughout the arduous process. Knight knew the details of tax policies and could read the winds of politics.

“She was the linchpin,” a Trump administration official said.

 

‘Internal coordination’

Republicans were fractured and disorganized on health care in 2017. Tax reform, they vowed, would be different. 

(Part Six: The lobbying frenzy)

When Mnuchin interviewed Tony Sayegh to be his lead communications aide on tax reform, the treasury secretary asked a key question: What would be the biggest obstacle to overcome to pass a tax package?

Sayegh replied, “Internal coordination.”

To help get the Trump administration on the same messaging page, Sayegh was given a coveted “blue pass” to gain entry to the White House at any time. But there was one problem: Sayegh didn’t have a desk.

The solution: Then-White House communications director Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksTrump feared Mueller's appointment: 'This is the end of my Presidency' Investigators in Trump hush money probe interviewed Hicks, security chief: report The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — House Dems flex subpoena powers MORE told Sayegh to set up shop in her small office near the Oval Office.

 

Tim Scott, Trump and opportunity zones

Scott had issues with Trump’s controversial comments in August 2017 following white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Several weeks later, when the Senate returned to Washington, Scott, the only black Republican senator, met with the president. During that meeting, Scott asked him to support a bill he had aimed at lifting up low-income areas “as a way to bring people together.”

Scott’s bill was designed to spur investment in low-income communities by giving investors a tax benefit if they invested in areas designated as “opportunity zones.” It was an idea Scott has been working on for several years.

Trump told Scott that he would love to be helpful. The next day, the president spoke about Scott’s bill in a gaggle with reporters on Air Force One.

“Getting that into the tax-reform package was a thrill of a lifetime,” Scott said. 

 

‘Coach Kevin’ and the Astros

Late one night just before the House released its bill, Ways and Means Republicans huddled in the committee’s room on the second floor of the Capitol.

The World Series was playing on a television in the room, but lawmakers instead focused their attention on a white board, where a committee aide was explaining how the bill’s tax break for pass-through businesses would work.

Brady went to a corner of the room and took a picture of the scene.

That moment was one of Brady’s favorite memories from the process of crafting the tax bill. He viewed the process of getting the bill through Congress a team effort among those on the committee.

In turn, his colleagues called him “Coach Kevin” and viewed his efforts as indispensable.

Brady had begun holding team-building exercises with Ways and Means members at some point after he became chairman, asking lawmakers to write down their top priorities — and biggest concerns — in tax reform.

It was a way to set their intentions and get everyone on the same page, literally and physically, as they embarked on their ambitious quest to rewrite the tax code.

“Kevin was bringing that kind of baseball coach mentality,” Reed said. “It was getting the team together.”

Republicans across the board credit Brady’s even-keeled demeanor and warm, welcoming style with being able to lead the restive GOP conference.

A previous GOP chairman who passed tax cuts, former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) was known for cracking the whip. But Brady, with a short stature and shiny bald head, came off as firm and tough, yet nonconfrontational and willing to listen. He was seen a calming presence in the sometimes-tumultuous storm.

Brady began dedicating every waking moment to tax reform. Sometimes, Brady stayed in Washington over the weekend instead of going back to his home in the Houston area.

The Sunday before the House released its bill, Brady was still working when one of his aides told him to go back to his D.C. townhouse and watch the World Series, which his beloved Houston Astros were playing in.

Brady followed this advice, but when he got home, there was a glitch — his cable was out.

“It was the famous fifth game, maybe one of the best World Series games in history, with my team,” Brady said. He ended up reading about the end of the game, which the Astros won 13-12 in the 10th inning, on his laptop.

“That was where tax reform was painful,” he said.

When the World Series was on in the Capitol while he was working, Brady wouldn’t look at the TV for fear of jinxing the Astros. His home team ended up winning the World Series hours before the House dropped its bill.

Brady was less superstitious about the tax bill. But he said his roommates noticed that he started playing increasing louder and more energetic music in the mornings in the D.C. townhouse as the process moved along.

At night, Brady would sit at home on his green, fake-leather, duct-taped chair with some of his roommates, looking over documents and dishing on the latest tax reform developments with his roommates Reps. Scalise, Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenBlue states angry over SALT cap should give fiscal sobriety a try Push for ‘Medicare for all’ worries centrist Dems Lawmakers beat lobbyists at charity hockey game MORE (R-Minn.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusA conservative climate plan will build on personal responsibility while reducing emissions Congress just proved there is hope for honest discussion on climate Dems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants MORE (R-Ill.).

The late nights and the sacrifices were all worth it, Brady said. When he banged down the gavel at the end of the committee markup after Republicans had united to pass the bill, Brady got emotional.

“That was a special moment,” he said.

 

Pushing the child tax credit

A last-minute obstacle emerged during the conference-committee process, when Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFreedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers Booker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Dems say attorney general undermined credibility with Trump talking point MORE (R-Fla.) said he would vote against the bill unless the refundable amount of the child tax credit was increased, and Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeDems sound alarm over top DOJ nominee Restore Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison Former Democratic aide pleads guilty to doxing GOP senators attending Kavanaugh hearing MORE (R-Utah) said he was undecided for similar reasons.

Rubio and Lee had been pushing for years to increase the amount of the child tax credit and saw a window for opportunity to achieve their goal with the tax bill. The pair held several meetings with the White House about the issue, including Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser.

“She became convinced that this was both good policy and somewhat achievable,” Lee said.

Other allies of Rubio and Lee were Sens. Scott and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary Oregon Dem top recipient of 2018 marijuana industry money, study finds MORE (R-Nev.), who both serve on the Finance Committee.

In the months leading up to the bill’s release, senators were stuck at increasing the credit amount from $1,000 to about $1,600. But Scott said Ivanka Trump worked to push to boost the size of the credit.

When the bill came to the Senate floor, Rubio and Lee offered an amendment to make the child tax credit refundable against payroll taxes, offset by a slight uptick from the proposed corporate tax rate of 20 percent.

The amendment didn’t sit well with a lot of other Republicans, who made a low corporate tax rate one of their top priorities. The amendment failed, but Rubio and Lee still voted for the bill. At the time, they didn’t threaten to vote against the legislation if their amendment failed because they still were open to other ways to pay for it.

But after word came out that the conference committee had plans to bump the corporate rate up to 21 percent for reasons other to pay for a further expansion of the tax credit, Rubio and Lee took a more forceful stand.

“We both found that quite troubling,” Lee said.

Rubio said he’d vote against the bill if the refundable amount of the child tax credit wasn’t increased, while Lee said he was undecided.

Scott talked frequently to Rubio and Lee to work with them on getting a deal.

“Marco and I both continued to hold our ground, saying, ‘Look, if you want my vote, it’s not really that hard, but you got to give something,’ ” Lee said.

The conference negotiators were able to increase the refundable child tax credit to $1,400, which secured Rubio’s and Lee’s votes. Scott, who has a friendship with Rubio that predates the tax bill, played a key part in those negotiations.

“The strength of our relationship allowed for us to go through that challenging and difficult time,” Scott said.

 

The messaging game

In the early fall, Republicans were starting to grow worried that the Democrats were gaining ground in the messaging war, which they knew would be crucial for the bill’s popularity with the public.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage Former FBI official praises Barr for 'professional' press conference MORE (D-N.Y.) had launched an aggressive attack strategy, calling the measure a “tax scam” and making the case the bill was nothing more than a corporate giveaway designed to benefit the wealthiest Americans.

So, Republicans went on offense, doing a flurry of cable TV appearances and frantically selling the tax-cuts package every chance they had.

“We went on TV a lot more,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Mueller report poses new test for Dems Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.

GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Overnight Energy: Wheeler vows to keep funds for Great Lakes cleanup | Inslee presses Trump on climate in House testimony | Dems seek more funds for Interior watchdog Inslee presses Trump on climate change in House testimony MORE (Wash.) arranged "media rows" with a bunch of local print reporters and television stations, which took place in a conference room inside a House office building. Members were encouraged to come in, go down the line of reporters and do as many interviews on tax reform as possible.

A Trump administration official said the White House focused on winning the message outside the Washington Beltway: “Our plan wasn’t to have it play well on CNN, but to have it play well in Peoria.”

A week before the tax bill passed the House, the polling numbers on the legislation were bad.

But Scalise said he wasn’t worried about losing votes.

“There were a lot of members that saw the wind blowing against them on this bill but knew it was the right thing to do to get the economy moving again and voted for it despite what the polling of the day might have shown,” Scalise said.

 

The frantic end

The House vote wasn’t a major cliffhanger, but it was a charged debate less than a week before Christmas. When all the votes were registered and the vote was gaveled, Mnuchin was in the House gallery and started to clap. A security guard quickly told Mnuchin that no clapping is allowed in the gallery.

A few weeks after passage, lawmakers on the Ways and Means Committee finally broke out their signed “24” hats from the glass case. They brought in Ryan, Camp and former Ways and Means member Bob Dold (R-Ill.) to give them honorary hats.

“We got the band back together,” Reed said.

The final Senate vote, which occurred Dec. 20, was more of a nail-biter. Administration officials were nervous in the days leading up to the roll call as the votes of Corker and Collins were still in play.

Several administration officials said they were not guarded against overconfidence after the ObamaCare fiasco. Some Republicans said they knew they had the votes a day before the final vote, while others maintained the drama extended throughout the debate on the Senate floor.

Marc Short, who at the time was Trump’s director of legislative affairs, said he wasn’t sure until the night of the vote: “But I also confess I felt more confident all along because I had seen the pressure that members were under after the health-care vote. I was pretty confident that we were going to get it done one way or the other. “

Vice President Pence was on call to cast the tie-breaking vote. That would have been necessary if one Republican broke ranks. As Cohn paced the hall behind the Senate chamber, Pence called Ivanka Trump to trade information on the latest developments. But she couldn’t take the call because she was on the phone with the president.

Pence’s vote was not needed as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed 51-48 at 12:31 a.m.

 

Trump hands out signing pens

There was discussion of having a high-profile ceremony in January where Trump would sign the bill into law. Such a press event couldn’t happen before Christmas because lawmakers had already headed home. But Trump rejected the idea. He wanted to fulfill his promise to sign the measure in 2017.

Ken Kies, the managing director of the Federal Policy Group who had worked as a top aide on the 1986 tax reform effort, took notice of the low-key signing ceremony on Dec. 22.

“There was no audience. The only people there were the television camera guys and the boom mic guys. There was no one else in the room. It’s live, he’s signing it and he gets done, and he goes, ‘Hey, you want some of these [signing] pens?’ ”

Kies added, “I’m watching it on TV and I’m thinking oh my God, the members of Congress who kill for those things are watching going, ‘Wait a second, he’s giving them away to the camera guys?!’”

 

Members of The Hill's staff who have worked on this tax reform series over the last 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.