THE TICKER

If you didn’t know better, you might think some Republicans were trying to see how low they can drive public support for their tax plan. 

It’s already basement-dwelling, with lopsided majorities of voters consistently telling pollsters the GOP’s rewrite of the code will benefit the wealthy more than the middle class. On Thursday, 54 House Republicans banded together behind a push seemingly tailor-made to reinforce the suspicion. 

Their request, laid out in a letter to their leadership: to insist in conference negotiations on maintaining the House tax bill’s full repeal of the estate tax, rather than the Senate version, which doubles the current exemption to $22 million for couples. 

“I get all the political arguments over, ‘Hey it’s an easier political deal to do it this way,’ particularly given the perceptions with the president,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who organized the letter, tells me, referring to estimates that full repeal would save President Trump’s heirs $1.1 billion. “But the reality is, this is just a fundamental issue about, to me, a tax that seems immoral… It’s been a long-term Republican platform position. To me, it's important to do the things we said we were going to do.”

The letter came hours after the release of a national poll showing, again, the tax push remains deeply unpopular with voters. Sixty-nine percent of respondents to the CBS News survey said the proposal would benefit wealthy Americans; less than a quarter said it would help their own family. 

And it also comes on the heels of a new report showing the wealthiest 1 percent of American households own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, a higher share than at any point since at least 1962. That wealth gap is widening, with the share of the wealth owned by the top 1 percent climbing nearly three percentage points since 2013. 

Some conservatives registered objections to full repeal of the estate tax, including Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell (R-Ky.): 

And blogger and radio host Erick Erickson:

Republican negotiators aim to hash out differences between the two chambers' bills in time to get a package to the president before Christmas. Since both versions exhausted the $1.5 billion in deficit spending their budget blueprints allowed, deciding what ends up in the final product requires making decisions between competing demands. 

The Republicans who signed Davidson’s letter aren’t the only ones who believe the estate tax repeal deserves priority. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said the tax is “just wrong” and committed to fighting for full repeal in conference, per the Washington Examiner’s Joseph Lawler. (There are Senate Republican negotiators on both sides. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman points to scarce revenue in arguing for the Senate version, which is $68 billion cheaper, while South Dakota Sen. John Thune embraces the lower chamber's position.)

The estate tax repeal advocates are arguing for a shrinking, and extremely wealthy, slice of the population. As The Post’s Glenn Kessler points out, since successive Congresses started chipping away at the levy four decades ago, the number of estates it captures has dwindled from 139,000 in 1977 to 52,000 in 2000 to just 5,500 this year. About half those subject to it would pay an average tax of roughly 9 percent. And while Trump’s campaign plan called for repealing the tax, as Glenn points out, the House-passed bill goes further by also protecting inherited assets from capital gains taxes they would otherwise face. 

“It seems to me it ought to be a remarkably low priority for tax reduction,” says Michael Graetz, a law professor at Columbia University and former Treasury Department official under George H.W. Bush whose 2006 book “Death by a Thousand Cuts” chronicled the history of estate tax lobbying.

Proponents of full repeal, he said, “hide behind farmers and small businesses, but estate tax revenues virtually all come from portfolio wealth. Once you’re up to a $22 million exemption, the only people paying the estate tax are the hundred-millionaires and billionaires.”

Indeed, the Mars family — owners of the candy empire and worth an estimated $78 billion, making them the third-richest clan in the country — is still actively lobbying on the issue, lobbying records show. “As a family-held business, we are supportive of meaningful corporate tax reforms and estate tax reforms, which allow us to grow, re-invest in our company and continue to create jobs in the United States,” Denise Young, Mars Incorporated’s global director of external communications, said in a statement. 

Jamie Richardson, vice president of the burger chain White Castle — likewise a family-owned business since its 1921 founding — said repealing the tax would strengthen a business model that, unlike public companies, doesn’t manage with an eye toward Wall Street and short-term returns. The company is aiming for $700 million in revenue this year, “but that gets reinvested back in the business and the margins are small,” he said. 

“Of course there are going to be tough decisions,” Richardson said of the tax debate’s endgame. “It’s about achieving lower rates and making sure the benefits are real for every American citizen. We really believe this is something that’s going to free up a lot of opportunity for a lot of family businesses to grow and prosper.” He plans on traveling from Columbus, Ohio to Washington next week to make the case to lawmakers in person. 

Meanwhile, Davidson, whose 8th district runs up the western border of the state and stretches east toward Columbus, said “it’s important that we do the things we’ve told the American people we’re going to do.”

Davidson added he wouldn’t put estate tax repeal at the top of his list of last-minute edits to the tax package. More importantly, he said, the final product should repeal the alternative minimum tax and make individual rate cuts permanent. 

MARKET MOVERS

Brexit breakthrough. FT's Alex Barker, Jim Brunsden, and Arthur Beesley: "Britain has reached a historic deal on its EU exit terms, enshrining special rights for 4m citizens and paying €40bn to €60bn in a hard-fought Brexit divorce settlement that clears the way for trade talks next year. Theresa May, the UK prime minister, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, met in Brussels early on Friday to sign off a 15-page 'progress report' that will allow EU negotiators to recommend opening a second phase of talks on post-Brexit relations. The breakthrough came after a week of high drama in Brussels and Westminster over Northern Ireland’s border, with original compromises scuttled on Monday by the Democratic Unionist party, Mrs May’s parliamentary allies. Arlene Foster, DUP leader, made it clear that she had reservations about the final wording of the deal, but she told Sky News she had secured 'substantial changes' to the text."

Some top lines, courtesy of Bloomberg:

November's jobs report should provide a clearer look at the labor market's health following two hurricane-influenced months.
WSJ
Business
The digital currency, worth less than $1,000 at the start of the year, will trade for the first time on a U.S. financial market this Sunday.
Renae Merle
MONEY ON THE HILL

Congress averts shutdown. For now. The Post's Mike DeBonis: "Congress passed a short-term spending deal Thursday, sending to President Trump a bill to avert a partial government shutdown and setting up a heated budget fight later this month. Trump has indicated that he will sign the deal, preventing a government stoppage that had been set to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The deal does not resolve numerous debates over domestic spending, immigration and funding for the military that brought the government to the brink of partial closure, leaving party leaders with a new Dec. 22 deadline to keep the government open.

There are clear obstacles to any longer-term deal, and leaders of both parties are demanding concessions in exchange for their members’ support. Democrats are pushing for the next government funding bill to include increased domestic spending, legal status for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and other party priorities. Some Republicans are pushing for increased defense spending, while others have made shrinking the government their top objective."

Reminder: Shutdowns are expensive. The Post's Jeff Stein: "On Wednesday, S&P Global analysts said a shutdown would cost the economy about $6.5 billion per week, or about 0.2 percent of gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter of 2017, as the impact of furloughing federal employees ripples across the country. 'If a shutdown were to take place so far into the quarter, fourth-quarter GDP would not have time to bounce back, which could shake investors and consumers and, as a result, possibly snuff out any economic momentum,' the report says. 'The timing could not be worse.'"

TAX FLY-AROUND:

Will Collins hold? Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur: "The three biggest stories in Washington -- a broad overhaul of the U.S. tax structure, a health-care makeover and a spending bill that would avert a government shutdown -- all depend, more or less, on one moderate Republican senator who says she’s got a deal that could deliver them all. The only trouble is, Senator Susan Collins’s deal could unravel fast, putting the Maine lawmaker and her party in a tight spot as GOP leaders seek a major policy win in 2017.

Collins joined 50 of her GOP Senate colleagues Saturday in voting for tax legislation -- but only after securing what she’s called a promise that Congress would pass two other bills before year’s end. Both measures are aimed at shoring up insurance marketplaces that experts say would be ravaged by one part of the Senate tax bill: a repeal of the “individual mandate” imposed by the 2010 Obamacare law. But Collins’s promise came from ... McConnell -- who can’t always deliver a vote in his own chamber, let alone the one across the capitol. It’s by no means clear that either of the health care bills Collins bargained for will get anywhere in the House, where conservatives regard at least one of the measures with disdain.

'I wasn’t part of those conversations,' House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Thursday, when asked about Collins’s bargain with McConnell. 'I’m not deeply familiar with those conversations.'"

International changes may wait. WSJ's Richard Rubin: "The prospect of starting a new international corporate tax system in 25 days is a bit daunting, and lawmakers may give more time for companies to adjust and for the Treasury Department to write rules. 'Because the international provisions are complex, just by the nature…we’ve had industries ask for transition periods in certain areas,' ...Brady...told reporters Thursday. 'Most of those requests, I think, are very fair.' Mr. Brady, who will lead a House-Senate conference committee working out the differences between the two bills, said he hadn’t talked to his Senate colleagues yet about this issue. And he wasn’t specific about which provisions might get different start dates."

Biz concerned. The Post's Heather Long: "For the most part, companies have cheered the Republican tax bills ever since the House first introduced its plan on Nov. 3. The Dow Jones industrial average rose over 700 points (3 percent) in November. But much of the euphoria stopped in the wee hours of Saturday morning, when the Senate hurriedly passed its bill and business leaders woke up to realize they weren't getting such a great deal after all. The biggest last-minute change the Senate made was to keep the corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT) at 20 percent — the same rate as the new, massively lower business tax rate. What that means is many businesses would not be able to take deductions and credits to lower their tax bill below 20 percent...

Manufacturing companies — the very businesses President Trump vowed to help in the campaign — would be hit especially hard... A half-dozen lobbyists who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly describe frantic calls Monday as companies from tech to industrials tried to figure out how to get Republicans to fix the bill. By Wednesday, top executives were talking with Gary Cohn, Trump's top economic policymaker, and Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.)."

From AEI's Jim Pethokoukis:

Next year's headlines today: Home Depot announces stock buyback. The Post's David Lynch: "With unemployment low and demand for new homes high, a company like Home Depot could be spending most of its surplus billions on raises for workers or the rollout of new stores. Instead, the world’s largest home improvement chain this week announced that it is using $15 billion to buy back shares of its own stock, a move that will reward shareholders including chief executive Craig Menear and other top executives. Even as lawmakers on Capitol Hill began hammering out the final version of a tax cut designed to give businesses more money to invest, Home Depot’s statement was a reminder that corporate America may have other plans for that cash."

Trump's richest friends want more. The Post's Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey: "Some of President Trump’s wealthiest New York friends have launched a last-minute campaign to pressure him for changes to the GOP tax bill, telling the president personally that the current plan would drive up their taxes and hurt his home state. Trump on Saturday attended a fundraiser at the home of Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group and the former leader of Trump’s now-disbanded White House Strategy and Policy Forum. Longtime Trump friend Richard LeFrak, a New York real estate magnate who Trump has said would play a lead role in his infrastructure push, also ­attended.

At the fundraiser, LeFrak asked Trump about making changes in the tax bill, people familiar with the exchange said. LeFrak had previously expressed to the White House concerns that the tax bill could hurt New York, and particularly its wealthy business class, people familiar with his thinking said. At least one other donor jumped in to echo LeFrak, the people said... In response, Trump told the group he was aware of the concerns among his old friends and business associates — and that he understood them."

Newman's Own accidental tax bill. Politico's Brian Faler: "A decision by the Senate’s parliamentarian could force the sale of the late actor Paul Newman’s food company, and dismantle his charity. During the Senate’s consideration of Republicans’ plans to rewrite the tax code, Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough struck a provision that would have spared Newman’s Own from an unusual 200 percent tax it’s facing...When Newman, one of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century, died in 2008, he left the company to his foundation, which gives away its profits to charity. The problem is a 1969 tax law that bars foundations from owning more than a small stake in private businesses. It was written with an eye toward preventing wealthy people from using foundations as tax shelters, and it imposes a deliberately confiscatory 200 percent tax on those that don’t unload their businesses after a certain period of time."

Ford fired. The tidal wave of revelations sweeping those accused of sexual abuse from power perches across the country has barely grazed Wall Street. That changed Thursday. NYT's Kate Kelly: "Harold Ford Jr., a former congressman turned Wall Street rainmaker, was fired by the financial services firm Morgan Stanley in recent days “for conduct inconsistent with our values and in violation of our policies,” the company said in a statement on Thursday. Morgan Stanley declined to say specifically what prompted the firing. But it came after a woman who did not work at the firm accused Mr. Ford of acting inappropriately in a professional setting, according to a person briefed on the details of the allegations...

In a statement provided by his lawyer, Mr. Ford denied the claims and threatened to sue the bank and his accuser, whom he identified as a reporter, for damaging his reputation. 'This simply did not happen,' Mr. Ford wrote. 'I have never forcibly grabbed any woman or man in my life.' He added that socializing with members of the press was part of his job, and said that 'false claims like this undermine the real silence breakers.' ... Mr. Ford appears regularly on the MSNBC show 'Morning Joe.' 'We are looking into the report about Harold Ford Jr.,' a spokeswoman for MSNBC said. 'During that time he won’t be a guest on MSNBC.'"

TRUMP TRACKER

Planning on an infrastructure plan. Bloomberg's Mark Niquette: "Trump plans to keep pushing his legislative agenda in 2018 by releasing his long-promised infrastructure proposal in early January, a senior administration official said... The president aims to release a detailed document of principles, rather than a drafted bill, for upgrading roads, bridges, airports and other public works before the Jan. 30 State of the Union address, said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details aren’t public. Naysayers should wait until they see the details and how the legislative process unfolds, the official said. The White House plan is essentially complete and Trump recently reviewed it, the official said. It calls for allocating at least $200 billion in federal funds over 10 years to spur at least $800 billion in spending by states, localities and the private sector."

Looks to locals for funds. The Post's John Wagner: "Even as President Trump and Republicans in Congress seek to cut federal taxes, the White House has quietly come up with a very different plan for infrastructure: It wants to reward states and localities willing to raise taxes or other revenue to pay for new projects. The dynamic is key to the Trump administration’s latest thinking on an infrastructure bill aimed at spurring a $1 trillion investment in the nation’s ailing roads, bridges, rail lines and airports. Originally touted by Trump as a first-100-days initiative — and one with the prospect for bipartisan support — it has stalled amid other bruising legislative battles. The approach now being contemplated is considered innovative by some infrastructure experts but also carries considerable political and economic risks for Trump."

Muzinich for under secretary. Bloomberg's Saleha Mohsin and Jennifer Jacobs: "Justin Muzinich, a counselor to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, is being considered for nomination to be undersecretary for domestic finance, according to three people familiar with the matter. Muzinich, a former Morgan Stanley banker who joined Mnuchin’s team in March as a counselor, has focused on the administration’s tax plan. The undersecretary position, which requires Senate confirmation, has remained vacant since Mary Miller left in 2014. A decision on who will take the role has not been finalized, the people said."

(Flashback to Aug. 4. The Finance 202: "Justin Muzinich, a former Wall Streeter serving as a counselor at Treasury, is said to be up for a promotion to under secretary for domestic finance.")

RUSSIA WATCH: 

New emails show follow-up after Trump Tower meeting. CNN's Jim Sciutto, Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb: "The British publicist who arranged the June 2016 meeting with Russians and Donald Trump Jr. sent multiple emails to a Russian participant and a member of Donald Trump's inner circle later that summer, multiple sources told CNN, the first indication there was any follow-up after the meeting.

The emails raise new questions for congressional investigators about what was discussed at Trump Tower. Trump Jr. has for months contended that after being promised he would get dirt on Hillary Clinton, the brief meeting focused almost exclusively on the issue of Russian adoptions, saying there was no discussion with the participants after that session. The emails from the publicist, Rob Goldstone, were discovered by congressional investigators and raised at Wednesday's classified hearing with Trump Jr., who said he could not recall the interactions, several sources said.

None of the newly disclosed emails were sent directly to Trump Jr. They are bound to be a subject during Goldstone's closed-door meetings with the House and Senate intelligence panels, which are expected to take place as early as next week."

Russian exec sought to help. The Post's Roz Helderman, Anton Troianovski and Tom Hamburger scoop: "An executive at a leading Russian social media company made several overtures to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 — including days before the November election — urging the candidate to create a page on the website to appeal to Russian Americans and Russians. The executive at Vkontakte, or VK, Russia’s equivalent to Facebook, emailed Donald Trump Jr. and social media director Dan Scavino in January and again in November of last year, offering to help promote Trump’s campaign to its nearly 100 million users, according to people familiar with the messages.

'It will be the top news in Russia,' Konstantin Sidorkov, who serves as VK’s director of partnership marketing, wrote on Nov. 5, 2016. While Scavino expressed interest in learning more at one point, it is unclear whether the campaign pursued the idea. An attorney for Trump Jr. said his client forwarded a pitch about the concept to Scavino early in the year and could not recall any further discussion about it."

Fox smears Mueller. CNN's Brian Stelter: "What's President Trump hearing when he watches Fox News? He's hearing that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is 'illegitimate and corrupt.' That it's led by a 'band of merry Trump-haters' who are trying to reverse the results of the election. And that it must be stopped. He's also hearing that the FBI is becoming 'America's secret police,' akin to the KGB in Russia, full of 'sickness" and "corruption.' These are all actual quotes from some of the president's favorite pro-Trump talk shows. The overarching message from 'Fox & Friends' and 'Hannity' is unmistakable: Mr. President, you're the victim of a 'deep state' plot to take you down. Don't let it happen."

A group of Democratic lawmakers has sent a letter to White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner asking if since the election of his father-in-law Donald Trump he has discussed with foreigners the financing of a Manhattan office tower owned by his family.
Bloomberg
Politics
The president boasted to a group of corporate and Wall Street titans as a tax-cut package benefiting the rich moved forward.
Josh Dawsey
POCKET CHANGE
U.S. household wealth in the third quarter rose to another record, driven by a stock-market surge and rising property values, figures from the Federal Reserve in Washington showed Thursday.
Bloomberg
Wall Street is coming down with a case of curve-flattening fever. After weeks of relentless narrowing of the spread between short- and long-dated Treasuries, strategists have been left with little choice but to contemplate an inverted yield curve when crafting outlooks for 2018 and beyond.
Bloomberg
So what does SpaceX CEO Elon Musk think of Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s claim that the first humans on Mars will arrive on a Boeing rocket? “Do it,” Musk tweeted.
GeekWire
THE REGULATORS
The deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) asked a federal court Wednesd
The Hill
The Federal Reserve proposed disclosing more about its big-bank stress tests, in response to criticism from bankers who have said the exams’ results are hard to understand.
Wall Street Journal
CHART TOPPER

From The Post's Christopher Ingraham: "The U.S. economy is creating millionaires at an astonishing pace. But what’s it doing for everyone else?:"

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The FDIC holds a webinar on the Affordable Mortgage Lending Guide.

Coming Up

  • The Peterson Institution for International Economics hosts a book release for “Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy” on Dec. 11.
THE FUNNIES

From The Post's Tom Toles:

BULL SESSION

What happened between President Trump, former FBI director James B. Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn? The Fact Checker's Timeline:

From CNN's Christopher Massie, a 1997 clip of Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore:

Stephen Colbert talks about Donald Trump Jr.'s testimony in the Russia investigation:

Late Night with Seth Meyers takes a closer look at Sen. Al Franken's resignation as well as Donald Trump Jr.'s testimony in the Russia investigation: