If Congress does decide to lower the amount of pretax money people can contribute to their retirement plans as part of a broader tax bill, they'll force Trump into an impossible position: Choose between keeping one of his key promises or signing into law a tax bill.
That's a hypothetical — Republicans still don't have a tax bill yet — but it got a lot less hypothetical Wednesday.
And it underscores how little political capital Trump has on Capitol Hill right now, even among Republicans who haven't accused him of “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior.” (At least, not publicly.)
Basically, Republicans are calling Trump's bluff that what he says he wants on policy is what he means — on one of the most consequential policy debates for Republicans this year, no less.
“No I don’t think so,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the top tax-writing GOP senator, told The Post on whether he felt pressure to change his tax bill because of the White House.
The House's top GOP tax writer was a little more diplomatic when talking to reporters Wednesday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast: “We think in tax reform we can create incentives for people to save more and save sooner,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said by way of explanation that changes to 401(k) plans are still in the mix.
From Congress's perspective, it makes sense to leave Trump out of policymaking and ignore his tweets, no matter how declarative they are.
Ten months in, Trump has no working relationship with Congress and no reputation as a trustworthy dealmaker. He has taken little to no interest in policy. Actually, he consistently demonstrates he doesn't have a grasp on a lot of it. This spring and summer, he largely outsourced Obamacare repeal to the Hill, created a bunch of distracting self-inflicted controversies, then publicly bashed his own party for falling short by one vote in the Senate. He switches his positions on basic issues as often as Katy Perry changes costumes in a show.
If you're a lawmaker trying to puzzle together how to pass the first tax reform bill in three decades with no margin for error in both chambers, you almost have to ignore the president and do your own thing. Their bet is that he'd probably sign a tax bill anyway, as long as he can pitch it as middle-class tax reform.
That's a good bet. Trump told reporters Wednesday afternoon that, actually, he's open to changing how much pretax money people can contribute to their 401(k) plans. He reframed his promise that 401(k) plans wouldn't be touched as a negotiating tactic, saying that he was trying to influence how much Congress could change the plans.
"I didn't want it to go too far, that's why I ended it very quickly," Trump said.
Trump has flip-flopped so much that when he lunched with GOP senators Tuesday, they told my colleague Sean Sullivan that they most wanted to hear what Trump wanted in a tax bill or health-care bill. That's remarkable. GOP lawmakers have no idea what the president of their own party will sign into law on major pieces of legislation.
Republican lawmakers may not ultimately end up changing or limiting people's 401(k) plans. It certainly feeds into a narrative that they are drafting a tax bill to help out the wealthy and not the middle class. A September Washington Post-ABC News poll found that half of Americans think Trump's tax plan will help the rich. And more than 7 in 10 adults say the nation's current tax system already favors the wealthy more than the middle class.
But Republicans — including Trump — are going to have to make politically unpopular choices somewhere in this tax writing process. In September, they proposed a framework that could cost the government $4 trillion in tax cuts. Republicans are hoping to trim that to $1.5 trillion, which is still a high number for a party that likes to position itself as the fiscally conservative one.
They'll have to find ways to save money by limiting popular tax cuts and deductions, like the ability for some people to deduct state and local income tax, or the popular mortgage interest deduction.
As Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has told our Post reporters, finding a consensus on all that will take a “herculean effort.” Part of that effort apparently includes ignoring the president when it means a tax bill is on the line.