Heading into a contentious campaign for control of Congress, Republicans are increasingly divided over how to bolster their signature legislative achievement — a $1.5 trillion tax cut — amid signs it is not the political gift they had expected it to be last year.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) aims to pass another massive tax cut this summer, which Republicans hope will rev up the GOP base and improve the standing of Republicans at the polls.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is under pressure to block a vote, which Republican campaign strategists worry could allow red-state Democrats to vote for additional tax cuts and undermine one of the GOP’s most effective lines of attack in conservative-leaning states: that Democrats voted against a big tax cut last December.
“That’s a very serious concern, and Senator McConnell is going to have to decide what happens in the Senate,” said Ryan Ellis, senior tax adviser with the conservative Family Business Coalition.
The GOP debate shows how the tax bill, which Republicans rushed to pass in December despite the enormous complexity of overhauling the tax code, has not become the campaign booster Republicans said it would be.
Republicans had bet that increasing the take-home pay of Americans would help them defeat Democrats come November. But months after the tax cut started to affect paychecks, polling shows the legislation remains unpopular. A Wall Street Journal and NBC News poll published this week found that 27 percent of respondents thought the tax law was a good idea, while 36 percent said it was a bad idea.
That is a major problem for Republicans, who since taking control of the government last year have dealt with party infighting, high-profile retirements, multiple stalled attempts to repeal President Barack Obama’s health-care law and the constant swirl of controversy surrounding President Trump.
Some Republicans have even suggested that voters might not have noticed increases of $40 or $60 or so in their paychecks, partly because many workers no longer get paper pay stubs. That, too, points to the need for Republicans to work harder to sell the law, they said.
“Ninety percent of Americans have received a notice saying your withholding is going to be less, or they’ve seen it in their paycheck,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “So they may not have noticed it, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”
The $1.5 trillion legislation was primarily focused on cutting taxes for companies. It also trimmed individual taxes, but those cuts were left to expire in 2026 to comply with Senate budget rules.
Democrats have seized on the unbalanced approach, which Republicans promised would be rectified.
“We fully intend to make these things permanent, and that’s something we’ll be acting on later this year,” Ryan said this week.
Conservative leaders met with Ryan on Monday and expect a vote in June or July. That would give lawmakers time to discuss the issue with constituents over the August recess and ahead of Labor Day, the traditional kickoff to the election campaign season.
McConnell hedged when asked this week whether the Senate would also hold a vote on tax cut permanency.
“Of course we would like to make the individual tax cuts permanent,” McConnell said. “We may. We’ll take a look at it, yes.”
But privately, Republicans trying to knock off Senate Democrats in states including West Virginia, Montana, Indiana and Missouri don’t want McConnell to take such a vote and are urging him against it, according to two GOP strategists knowledgeable about the conversations.
“Holding another vote would take away one of the bigger hits we have against Democrats for this fall and gives them a chance to take credit for work and progress made by President Trump and Republicans,” said one Senate Republican campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue candidly.
Another Republican strategist closely involved in Senate campaigns said that officials with the National Republican Senate Committee were urging McConnell not to hold a vote on individual tax cut permanence out of concern for the benefit to endangered Democrats. The strategist also requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations.
For their part, red-state Democrats appear ready to take advantage of a vote if Republicans schedule one. While enough Democrats would vote against additional tax cuts because of how much they’d add to the deficit, some such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia or Sen. Jon Tester of Montana could end up supporting them, thereby undercutting a major GOP line of attack against them.
“Oh, I’ve always been for the middle class getting a permanent tax cut. Absolutely,” Manchin said. “[Republicans have] thrown caution to the wind about anything being fiscally responsible, but these are the people who should have gotten that [tax cut].”
Tester said that if legislation comes up to extend the individual tax cuts, whether he votes for it “depends on what else was in the package. Depends on how it’s paid for.”
“I’m absolutely open to it,” Tester said.
Still, GOP leaders in the House and some conservative leaders argue that additional tax cuts would offer Americans another reminder that Republicans passed tax cuts in the first place and that Democrats broadly oppose them.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) is developing what he calls “Tax Reform 2.0,” which would include making the individual cuts permanent along with some other changes he said he’s working on with the White House.
“That includes permanence of our tax provisions,” Brady said in a speech Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s time to do that.”
Extending the individual tax cuts, along with several other key provisions in the law, would cost about $650 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
All along, GOP leaders anticipated that the individual tax cuts would end up getting extended permanently, as Congress has done in the past with tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush’s administration.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, argued that Democrats couldn’t do much to help themselves, having voted unanimously with their party against the tax law in the first place.
“Perhaps there’s a political reason they would vote yes now,” Gardner said. “But my position is why did they vote against individual tax cuts in the first place.”
And as Republicans have tried to keep the party on message, Trump has not always helped. He threw his prepared remarks in the air at a tax roundtable event this month, declaring them “a little boring,” and instead waded into other dramas facing his presidency.
“The president of the United States, when he tweets on anything other than the tax bill, is getting in the way of the message,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “You have to give them nothing but the tax bill.”
The struggles have led some Republicans to urge candidates to redouble their efforts to sell the tax law, which on average increased after-tax income for taxpayers in all tax groups this year, according to the Tax Foundation, while adding more than $1 trillion to the deficit.
GOP leaders and lawmakers used the opportunity of this week’s tax deadline to make the point repeatedly that this is the last year that Americans filed their taxes under the old tax code and that next year they will encounter a new, simpler and more favorable set of tax rules. Still, some fret that the message should be broadcast more strongly and consistently.
“Members sometimes think, well, osmosis, it’ll sort of happen over time. They just need to go make the case,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “And the more challenging the environment — and this is going to be a challenging environment — the more you have to make your own argument, and if you don’t do that, you’re going to be in trouble in November.”
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who was also in the Ryan meeting Monday, argued that even if Democrats such as Manchin or Tester voted in favor of extending individual tax cuts, that wouldn’t outweigh their earlier vote against the new tax law.
“You could make the case that it creates a John Kerry-like moment where they say, ‘I voted for the tax cuts after I voted against them,’ ” Reed speculated, referring to Kerry’s campaign trail gaffe as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 when he argued that he had voted for military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan before voting against it.
David Weigel contributed to this report.