GOP senators rip Trump but stay unified on tax overhaul

Small Russian flags bearing the word "Trump" are thrown by a protester toward President Donald Trump, as he walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Capitol Hill to have lunch with Senate Republicans.
Small Russian flags bearing the word "Trump" are thrown by a protester toward President Donald Trump, as he walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Capitol Hill to have lunch with Senate Republicans. AP

Rewriting the U.S. tax code, full speed ahead. The rest of the Senate agenda, maybe.

In the wake of Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s extraordinary Senate floor takedown of President Donald Trump — and Trump’s early morning pillorying of another Republican colleague — Senate Republicans signaled their intent Tuesday to return to business as usual. Minutes after Flake finished speaking on the floor, the Senate resumed debate on a disaster aid bill.

“Congress needs to do its work and we ought to be pursuing the goals of tax reform like we are,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. “I don’t think that what happened today changes that momentum.”

Flake’s announcement that he wouldn’t run for re-election and his scathing denunciation of Trump came minutes after senators emerged from a lunch with the president insisting that all was good.

The lunch followed an early morning flurry of Trump tweets castigating Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who fired back that Trump would be remembered most for “the debasement of our nation.” Corker is also not running for re-election.

The events underscored the deep divisions within the Republican Party, but senators insisted they could go about their business. Especially when it comes to cutting taxes, a cornerstone of GOP policy for decades.

“If there's anything that unifies Republicans, it's tax reform,” said McConnell, who spoke just before Flake took to the Senate floor.

Trump had told the lunch there was an “urgent need” for a tax overhaul.

And while lawmakers may not have been unified in their support for Trump, they were unified in their pursuit of a leaner tax code.

“We've been looking for the opportunity to do this literally for years,” McConnell, R-Ky., said. “We now have a president who will sign it, who believes in what we're trying to do. And we're going to concentrate on what our agenda is and not any of these other distractions that you all may be interested in.”

Aside from taxes, though, the public rebukes of Trump — highly unusual public criticism from senators of the same party — could complicate other legislative priorities. The Senate needs to pass a budget by early December to keep the government running through the fall. It is expected to consider a measure to keep Dreamers, or young people brought into the country by undocumented parents. And it continues to struggle with overhauling the nation’s health care system. Efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, a major Republican pledge for the past seven years, have failed.

The problem was the GOP’s inability to corral 51 votes needed for change. Chances are that without some presidential muscle, that task becomes even more difficult. Trump was noncommittal Tuesday about a Senate fix for insurance subsidies being developed by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and Patty Murray, D-Wash., but thanked Alexander for the effort.

Tax reform, though, has a different outlook. It will need only 51 Senate votes to cut off debate, instead of the usual 60. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

Flake made clear it’s not a unified 52-member caucus. He never mentioned Trump by name Tuesday in his floor speech but decried the "undermining of our democratic ideas, the personal attacks, the threats against principles."

He said he couldn't remain silent and in the Senate: "A political career does not mean much if we are complicit in undermining these values.”

Senators said they don’t expect Flake or Corker to let qualms about Trump impede the legislation’s progress. “I can’t imagine Sen. Flake would behave any differently in regard to things he believes in,” Moran said. “I don’t think his announcement changes his ability to support an agenda he supports.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said the looming retirement of the top Senate Trump critics could actually it easier to pass legislation in the future.

“The Senate would be a better body if the members were more focused on policy and doing the right thing for the American people and not always worried about re-election,” Daines said.

Some lawmakers have grumbled that the often impetuous president makes their task more difficult. On Monday Trump vowed there would be "no change" to rules for 401(k) plans, for instance, potentially delivering a blow to congressional Republicans who were said to be looking at capping retirement savings as a way to raise revenue.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said senators at lunch asked Trump to sell the Republican tax plan.

“For the next six months I’d like to see the president go to every state and talk tax reform, tax reform and tax reform,” Kennedy said.

Outside the chamber, senators looked to separate Flake’s words from their jobs.

“All of us bear the burden and responsibility of leading this nation in the direction that is in the best interest of the nation,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. “Sometimes, members do that in different ways.”

Scott also said it was important for lawmakers to "create positive momentum and try to be a part of that as well."

Emma Dumain, Brian Murphy, Emily Cadei and Joseph Cooke of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark