Sen. Tim Scott wants to be seen as more than just the Senate’s only black Republican. He’s hoping his leadership role in the tax debate will help him get there.
The South Carolina Republican has been one of the party’s top negotiators and salesmen for the Senate GOP’s tax overhaul proposal, a tough mission that’s getting more difficult every day.
Scott so far is pleased with how his political image is evolving.
“I’ve been called on by more (news) shows in the last eight or 10 weeks without race being a part of it than … (in) the first four years I’ve been in the Senate,” Scott told McClatchy in a recent interview. “It’s not just South Carolina-centric issues, or race-centric issues. It’s the broader portfolio that impacts the country and the world.”
The image overhaul, though, is far from complete.
The tax debate will inevitably end, probably in less than a month, leaving Scott without an obvious policy arena where he can shine.
As long as the GOP is viewed as a party whose officials and followers are overwhelmingly white, Scott will need more time to truly define himself as a wonk apart from his race, said Norman Ornstein, a veteran expert on Congress and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“What we know about Scott is he’s a smart guy who works hard and knows what he’s talking about,” Ornstein said. “But if you’re Scott, what you have to be wary of is, are your colleagues promoting you because you’re a token?”
Since Scott was appointed to the Senate in early 2013 after serving one full House term, he has struggled to portray himself as someone whose political skills go beyond his ability to speak candidly and eloquently about race in America.
Those skills, though, remain valuable in many quarters. Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who studies race in politics, said she understood Scott’s “worrying about being perceived as uni-dimensional,” but cautioned him not to stop being a “voice of conscience” in his party.
Scott insisted he’s hardly abandoning that role, saying he didn’t “mind talking about issues of conscience. I actually think it’s something we don’t do enough of.”
He explained his desire was to differentiate between “issues of conscience” and “issues of race.” With the GOP tax bill, Scott is now actually getting an opportunity to do that.
Around this time last year, as Republicans were preparing to retake control of both Congress and the White House for the first time in over a decade, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, handpicked Scott as one of his chief messengers, liaisons and negotiators for the party’s tax overhaul proposal.
Hatch instructed Scott to begin to familiarize himself with the portion of the tax code dealing with individuals, and to start soliciting feedback from colleagues.
Scott and the two others Hatch chose for the effort — Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania— mainly engaged with fellow Republicans, seeing Democrats as hostile to cooperating across party lines.
By spring, Hatch and Senate Republican leaders quietly determined the drafting of the party’s official tax overhaul framework would be overseen by this same small subset of Senate Finance Committee Republicans.
Scott was by far the most junior committee member to be brought into Hatch’s group. Portman is a former trade representative and White House budget chief. Toomey once ran the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who joined the group later in the process, is a member of the Republican leadership team.
Hatch told McClatchy he felt a kinship with the younger lawmaker: Both grew up in poverty and struggled to overcome socioeconomic obstacles.
Hatch, 83, was born during the Great Depression in a home with no indoor plumbing. He was a target of bullying for his ill-fitting clothes and for a time saw his future restricted to picking up his father’s trade as a lather.
Scott, 52, and his brothers were raised in North Charleston by a single mother who worked 16-hour days to support the family, enduring the indignities typical for a black family living in the South just years after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation.
“We both had very humble beginnings and I think that helps, especially in the tax area and in the area of working with the basic population, because we understand what it’s like to be poor,” Hatch said. “We understand what it’s like to not have anything. We understand what it’s like to have our mothers work themselves to death.”
Scott agreed his upbringing in “abject poverty” helped get him noticed, but argued he offered more than just that.
“I ran a county, I ran a business, I’ve had a C-Corp., I’ve had an LLC, I’ve had my individual taxes, I’ve started companies, I’ve built companies from scratch,” Scott said.
Durring the drafting stages of the Senate tax bill, Scott convinced leaders to double the existing child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, called Scott personally to thank him for advancing what was also her pet project.
He found a home in his chamber’s tax measure for his “Investing in Opportunity Act,” a bill he’s worked on for more two years that would create tax incentives for businesses that establish roots in economically distressed communities.
Scott also takes credit for helping secure in the Senate plan a 10 percent individual income bracket, so lower income people could pay lower taxes. The tax bill the House passed before Thanksgiving set the lowest income bracket at 12 percent.
According to those familiar with internal discussions, Scott’s strategy was not to be aggressive or confrontational, or even insist on receiving recognition for his efforts. Rather, he created an “echo chamber” around the issues he cared about, touting his priorities constantly at public events, during private dinners with colleagues and in meetings with leaders and senior tax-writing staff.
These policy victories, though, are still tenuous. The Senate still has to pass its bill, and leaders are open to making any number of changes to sway Republicans who say they’re undecided.
A small handful of lawmakers is reluctant to support the measure in its current form because it would add billions to the growing national deficit. Others are wary of the bill’s provision to end the requirement that most people obtain health insurance.
If the Senate passes the bill, the House and Senate both have to agree on a final product, where even more concessions — or sacrifices — will inevitably be made.
What comes next carries political risks for Scott’s image.
If he can’t point to policies he personally secured in a final product, it might be hard for him to argue he has the clout to be at other negotiating tables in the future.
And Scott is helping draft a hyper-partisan tax bill that may not be publicly loved once implementation begins.
On Monday, Scott said he didn’t think his newly-bolstered cache would suffer regardless of the bill’s outcome. He didn’t, though, understate the emotional toll of a potential a failure.
“It would be disappointing, disheartening, on the verge of devastating,” he said.