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Republicans view 2017 tax law the way Democrats view Obamacare: As a signature achievement they will fight to keep

President Biden addresses Congress on Wednesday.
President Biden addresses Congress on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Republicans have taken an aggressive approach to President Biden’s plans to finance his roughly $6 trillion agenda: Don’t mess with their 2017 tax cuts.

Even before Biden formally unveiled his plans, Republicans sent a message that they consider the 2017 law that slashed personal and corporate tax rates as a sacrosanct measure that they’ve no intention of gutting.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) explained this ethos in unusually blunt fashion when he returned to the Capitol on April 12 after Biden met with a small bipartisan group of lawmakers involved in infrastructure issues, telling the group he was targeting the very taxes that Republicans slashed four years ago.

“Clearly there are parts of his program that are non-starters for Republicans. The pay-for, I view the pay-for as a problem,” Wicker told reporters in the Capitol after that meeting. “I view the 2017 tax bill as one of my signature achievements in my entire career.”

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In many ways, Wicker signaled to Biden that Republicans view the 2017 law in the same manner that Democrats regard the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act: a signature achievement of domestic policy that they will defend in every way possible.

The two laws obviously had very different goals and very different results, one trying to provide health insurance for millions of uninsured Americans and the other reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

But each law goes to core tenets of traditional Democratic and Republican orthodoxy, and Republicans are gearing up for the fight.

“There’s not an appetite to undo the 2017 tax act among our members,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the GOP whip, told reporters at lunchtime Wednesday, about nine hours before Biden’s address.

Immediately after Biden’s speech, one of the most bipartisan Republicans declared herself “not overly inspired” by the new president because his agenda was so expansive.

“The only way to pay for it is to go after the issue of taxes. I think it makes it very difficult for it to be truly bipartisan,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Despite Murkowski’s deep opposition to President Donald Trump — she voted in February to convict the ex-president in an impeachment trial — she used negotiations over the 2017 tax law to win the inclusion of an oil drilling provision for her state.

It was a long-sought provision that previous Alaska Republicans had failed to secure, meaning that Murkowski views that 2017 law as one of her biggest accomplishments in more than 18 years in the Senate.

This is why it’s almost certain that a large portion of the next phase of Biden’s agenda will end up in an entirely partisan posture, with its success riding on whether Democrats can use special budget rules to pass most of the proposals on party-line votes that do not first require clearing the 60-vote threshold to cut off a Senate filibuster.

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The Democratic appetite to claw back that tax law is almost limitless. Throughout 2019 and early 2020, during the party’s presidential primary debates, it seemed as if every candidate’s big new proposal would be financed by undoing portions of the Trump-era tax cuts.

In the House on Wednesday night, Biden complained that the law was a budget-busting disaster and only helped the most powerful and wealthy.

“Look, the big tax cut of 2017, remember, it was supposed to pay for itself — that was how it was sold — and generate vast economic growth. Instead, it added $2 trillion to the deficit,” Biden told lawmakers. “It was a huge windfall for corporate America and those at the very top.”

To some degree Democrats sound like Republicans a decade ago when they plotted a several-year course to try to repeal the ACA, which had originally been panned as “Obamacare” by GOP lawmakers who despised the law.

The pressure built until the fall of 2013, when the most conservative lawmakers, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), forced a long shutdown of the federal government in a bid to eliminate funding for implementation of the health law.

Obama and congressional Democrats held the line, viewing it as their biggest domestic policy achievement during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Republican leaders would later acknowledge the foolishness of this strategy.

“More practically, I also knew there was no way in hell President Obama would ever give in on his signature achievement just to appease Ted Cruz and the radicals. Obama was open to making deals, yes, but this wasn’t a real deal. This was insanity,” John A. Boehner (Ohio), the Republican House speaker at the time, wrote in his new memoir, “On the House.”

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With Democrats holding the White House and small majorities in the House and Senate, they have a narrow path to rewriting the tax code on a party-line vote, the same way Republicans tried and failed four years ago to repeal the ACA.

Every Democrat opposed the effort, and they peeled off just enough Republicans to preserve the health law. After that failure, Republicans turned to the tax law. While Trump focused on issues such as a border wall and trade wars, the GOP-led Congress of 2017 did most of the work in drafting the legislation, using the old “supply side” theories that gained popularity in conservative circles in the 1980s.

For conservatives such as Thune and Wicker, those tax cuts were one of the few policy wins in the Trump era that meshed with their traditional economic beliefs. They argue that before the coronavirus pandemic prompted global shutdowns, those tax cuts helped fuel an economy that was humming along amid historically low unemployment rates and rising wages.

Which makes it all the more difficult to see any Republicans supporting a serious effort to undo the 2017 tax bill that Trump signed into law.

“It would be an almost impossible sell from the president to come to a bipartisan agreement that included the undoing of that signature. And I did tell him that,” Wicker said after his April 12 meeting with Biden.

Republicans know that his spending proposals are popular, but they must try to scare centrist Democrats into opposing the legislation because of the looming tax hikes — or else they’ll lose their crown jewel victory from the Trump years.

“Even if the spending is popular — and a lot of it probably will be — the tax increases, I think, are going to be a hard sell, not just with people in the country or with Republicans, but I think for some Democrats, too,” Thune said.

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