Just as I wrote last month, for congressional Republicans it’s tax reform or die. If the GOP fails to pass a meaningful tax bill, the rationale for having a majority in Congress will disappear. So, given that the stakes are so high, how is it going? Answer: not good.
Based on my 30-plus years working in Washington, I can say that this is not what legislative momentum feels like. I was in the White House in 1986 during President Ronald Reagan’s historic tax overhaul and, trust me, it was a different vibe.
Are we supposed to believe that all the noise and flames coming from Trump World are just a facade? And behind the facade, is there an effective process of policy development that can produce a meaningful — and passable — tax reform bill? Republicans everywhere are nervous.
We all hope that despite the colossal cacophony of self-inflicted Twitter distractions and almost daily gaffes, the president can be part of successful negotiations on tax reform. Republicans in Washington are trying to convince each other that just because we don’t see the administration’s policy machinery in place, it doesn’t mean there is no one making it all come together. Maybe National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn is Dick Darman reincarnated and all the ducks are getting lined up. Maybe.
Anyway, an important threshold is set to arrive next week when the Senate votes on the budget resolution. Passing the budget resolution is a critical first step, as it would allow tax reform legislation to pass with just 51 votes. As the New York Times reported yesterday, “A tax overhaul would be nearly impossible to achieve if the budget fails.” That means the White House needs to be helpful in securing the support of some of the usual suspects, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and, most recently, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Is it possible that the president can help? Or have we reached a tipping point where he hurts the efforts?
No matter what is going on with this White House, I’m reassured by the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is one of the few people in Washington who always has a plan. And he has realized the shift in liberal politics, writing in a commentary for NBC News yesterday, “Democrats are under pressure from the left to oppose just about everything President Trump touches — even ideas they themselves used to promote.” Good for McConnell; he knows better than anyone that Democrats will never work with Republicans on tax reform.
The fact is, bipartisanship is dead in Washington. Democrats hope that tax reform fails, so the burden is on Republicans to secure the votes. But right now, the GOP is close to the point where it will have to rely on saying prayers, lighting candles and hoping for the best. This just isn’t what the legislative environment should look like when a major piece of legislation is barreling through the system.
It isn’t impossible for tax reform to pass, but if it does, it looks as though it will be more of a miracle than the product of a finely tuned GOP strategy led by a masterful president.