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 HatchBottom line Bottom line Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  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 PortmanMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Romney undecided on authorizing subpoenas for GOP Obama-era probes Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery MORE (R-Ohio), 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.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottAuthor Ryan Girdusky: RNC worked best when highlighting 'regular people' as opposed to 'standard Republicans' Now is the time to renew our focus on students and their futures GOP lobbyists pleasantly surprised by Republican convention 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 ThuneSupreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error 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 TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act 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 McConnellHawley warns Schumer to steer clear of Catholic-based criticisms of Barrett Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' 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 MnuchinCentrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline MORE and then-National Economic Council Director Gary CohnGary David CohnGary Cohn: 'I haven't made up my mind' on vote for president in November Kushner says 'Alice in Wonderland' describes Trump presidency: Woodward book Former national economic council director: I agree with 50 percent of House Democrats' HEROES Act 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 MurkowskiSenate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Supreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink Democratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' 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 McCainCrenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat Analysis: Biden victory, Democratic sweep would bring biggest boost to economy The Memo: Trump's strengths complicate election picture 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 CollinsSenate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Democratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Poll: 57 percent of Americans think next president, Senate should fill Ginsburg vacancy 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 JohnsonSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Ginsburg lies in repose 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 DainesOn The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power Credit union group to spend million on Senate, House races 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 CorkerHas Congress captured Russia policy? Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (Tenn.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeHow fast population growth made Arizona a swing state Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Republican former Michigan governor says he's voting for Biden MORE (Ariz.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordMcConnell works to lock down GOP votes for coronavirus bill Charities scramble to plug revenue holes during pandemic Warren calls for Postal Service board members to fire DeJoy or resign 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 BradyBusinesses, states pass on Trump payroll tax deferral Trump order on drug prices faces long road to finish line On The Money: US deficit hits trillion amid pandemic | McConnell: Chance for relief deal 'doesn't look that good' | House employees won't have payroll taxes deferred 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 KellyFederal judge rules Pennsylvania's coronavirus orders are unconstitutional Judge halts Trump campaign's mail-voting lawsuit against Pennsylvania Rep. Dan Meuser tests positive for COVID-19 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. ReedCentrist House group offers bipartisan COVID-19 relief deal House approves two child care bills aimed at pandemic Diabetes Caucus co-chairs say telehealth expansion to continue beyond pandemic 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 RoskamBottom line Lobbying world House votes to temporarily repeal Trump SALT deduction cap 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. RenacciOhio is suddenly a 2020 battleground Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Medicare for All won't deliver what Democrats promise 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 RyanKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 At indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates 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 ScaliseGinsburg becomes the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol House GOP slated to unveil agenda ahead of election House panel details 'serious' concerns around Florida, Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin elections 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 BlackBottom line Overnight Health Care: Anti-abortion Democrats take heat from party | More states sue Purdue over opioid epidemic | 1 in 4 in poll say high costs led them to skip medical care Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee 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 TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump stokes fears over November election outcome Special counsel investigating DeVos for potential Hatch Act violation: report Trump, Biden vie for Minnesota 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 RossTrump admin asks Supreme Court to fast-track excluding people in U.S. illegally from census Trump 'very happy' to allow TikTok to operate in US if security concerns resolved TikTok, WeChat to be banned Sunday from US app stores MORE, Small Business Administrator Linda McMahonLinda Marie McMahonApril's dumbest and most dangerous coronavirus declarations Trump convenes sports commissioners in hopes of filling stadiums Senate confirms Trump pick for small business chief MORE and Office and Management Budget Director Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyOn The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security Blockchain trade group names Mick Mulvaney to board Mick Mulvaney to start hedge fund 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 HicksSenate intel leaders said Trump associates may have presented misleading testimony during Russia probe: report Cuomo turned down Trump invitation to participate in April press briefing: report Trump shakes up White House communications team 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 PaulsenMinnesota Rep. Dean Phillips wins primary Pass USMCA Coalition drops stance on passing USMCA Two swing-district Democrats raise impeachment calls after whistleblower reports MORE (R-Minn.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusBottom line Bottom Line Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic 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 RubioSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election GOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' 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 LeeSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs McConnell shores up GOP support for coronavirus package 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 HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play 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 PelosiPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' 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 MeadowsSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election White House chief of staff knocks FBI director over testimony on election fraud Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.

GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video Top House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing More than 100 lawmakers urge IRS to resolve stimulus payment issues 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.