Claire McCaskill thinks she knows why she sat right next to President Donald Trump at the White House. Of the Democrats invited to talk taxes in the West Wing on Wednesday, Trump won her state by the widest margin.
Five Senate Democrats, all facing tough re-election bids next year and representing states Trump won in November, got the invitations to gather around the president. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee was the only other Democrat at the meeting.
The up-close-and-personal seating vividly illustrated the risks red-state Democrats such McCaskill faces next year. As the White House pressures them to back a Republican-authored tax plan, the vulnerable Democrats signaled they’re willing to do business with the administration, but not on terms that alienates their party faithful.
Ten Democrats are up for re-election in states Trump won last year. Visiting the White House Wednesday were McCaskill and Democratic Senate colleagues Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bill Nelson of Florida, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Earlier this week, Trump daughter Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner hosted McCaskill, along with Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The consensus among Democrats at the meeting is that the GOP proposal so far seems mostly to benefit the wealthy, despite Trump's claims that it will help the middle class.
“I think he wanted to send us a message,” said Brown, adding that Democrats delivered a message of their own: “We care about middle class taxpayers and working class taxpayers.”
“The president likes the idea of a bipartisan bill. I like the idea of a bipartisan bill,” said McCaskill, seeking a third term in Missouri, a state Trump by about 19 points. “But getting from here to there is unrealistic if they won’t even share with us what they’re proposing.”
She said she complained to Trump that under the current framework a Missouri family of four making $50,000 a year would see an $887 tax increase.
She was told it would be tweaked.
“Well, where? Show us,” she said.
Wyden said Trump, who has reached out to Democrats on other issues, seemed open to ideas.
“Every time someone brought up one of these concerns, like I have, and there were others, the president said, ‘We’re going to take care of that,’’’ Wyden said.
White House officials have conceded they’ve reaching out to Democrats because Republicans’ narrow edge in the Senate — the GOP controls 52 of the 100 seats — has often made success elusive.
Seated between McCaskill and Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Trump told lawmakers that they face a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to rewrite the U.S. tax code that all sides agree is convoluted and unfair. He also suggested he’s already received Democratic support for the Republican framework.
“I have had people on both sides — and I promised not to mention the name of the people on the other sides, or names — but a lot of people are liking this very much,” Trump said. “I think we're going to have tremendous support.”
Trump prompted a round of laughter when he suggested he’d get unanimous support. “I have no doubt, right? Right, Ron?,” he said turning to Wyden.
Wyden did not respond, but smiled broadly. He later told reporters at the Capitol that there is a “grand canyon-sized gap between the rhetoric and the reality” of the Republican tax plan.
Republicans at the meeting said Trump made clear his preference for a package supported by Democrats and Republicans. GOP senators said they’d like to work with their colleagues, noting that the Senate would be more likely to reach a permanent fix working across the aisle.
“If we’re able to do it on a bipartisan basis it will be durable, it will be something that will be sustainable,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. said he heard much that the two parties could agree on. “The president today articulated his view, which syncs up with ours and frankly with a lot of Democrats who were in the room,” he said.
Yet there seemed to be one sort of political message coming from the White House and another from the Capitol.
Senate Republicans spent much of the day at the Capitol pursuing a track that would allow them to pass a tax code rewrite without any Democratic votes. The Senate began Wednesday to debate a budget bill that could pave the way for a tax package, turning aside a number of Democratic amendments.
“He kept saying ‘bipartisan, bipartisan,” Florida’s Nelson, said of Trump. “My sense is that he wants a deal. My sense is Republican leadership does not.”
Democratic leaders at the Capitol were in no mood for cooperation. Even as the Democrats from Trump-friendly states were meeting at the White House, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York was bashing the Republican plan as a gift to wealthy GOP donors.
Schumer said he’s not worried that Democrats, even those in precarious positions, will peel off and back the Republican tax plan. He noted that nearly all the chamber’s Democrats — including those who met Wednesday with Trump —- signed a letter in August saying they’d work with Republicans on taxes only if the legislation avoided tax breaks for the wealthy, didn’t increase the debt or deficit and wasn’t passed by the procedure that requires 51 votes to limit debate rather than the usual 60.
Even the three who did not sign the letter and who have been courted by the White House, “agreed with the principles,” Schumer said. Heitkamp, Manchin and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana did not sign the letter, but have not endorsed the GOP plan.
“It’s going to be like health care,” Schumer said. “By trying to do a tax bill that comes from the hard right, that benefits (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos, the Cabinet and other billionaires, they’re going to let every single Republican member hold them up and the bill will collapse.”
Joseph Cooke contributed to this report.