Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer Wednesday carefully avoided declaring the Republicans’ tax code overhaul plan as a non-starter or dead on arrival.
What he didn’t say was as important to the future of the GOP tax plan as what he did.
Schumer, along with other Democrats, signaled they’re willing to negotiate rates, deductions and almost anything else. And Republicans are likely to listen.
But their public rhetoric was largely a litany of familiar Democratic talking points.
"In the next few months, we are going to be talking about this every day, and the American people are not going to like this plan when they learn it," Schumer told reporters.
Democrats since last month have been adamant about what they want, and reiterated their view Wednesday. They said they could work with Republicans on taxes only if the legislation avoided cutting taxes for the wealthiest 1 percent, didn’t increase the debt or deficit, and wasn’t passed by a fast-track procedure known as reconciliation.
Forty-three of the Senate’s 46 Democrats and two independents signed a letter expressing that view.
Schumer went to the Senate floor to make the case again Wednesday, denouncing the plan “Wealth-fare,” a boon to Wall Street and a betrayal to the middle class taxpayers who he says need tax relief the most.
The plan, crafted by administration officials and congressional Republican leaders, among other things, seeks to cut the corporate tax rate, reduce the top individual tax rate to 35 percent from 39.6 percent, repeal the estate tax and double the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples.
“It seems the President Trump and Republicans have designed their plan to be cheered in the country clubs and boardrooms,” Schumer said.
But behind the tough talk there were symbols and language that suggested it was time to deal.
Three Democrats who didn’t sign last month’s letter are all vulnerable incumbents up for re-election next year – Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Donnelly traveled with Trump Wednesday to Indiana, where the president touted the GOP tax plan in a speech in the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis.
Donnelly’s presence didn’t stop Trump from telling the crowd that he’ll campaign against Donnelly “like you wouldn’t believe” if he votes against the GOP tax plan.
“I work for Hoosiers, not President Trump or any political party,” Donnelly shot back in a statement late Wednesday afternoon. “As it stands, the framework released today is missing many details that will be critical to determining whether working- and middle-class families truly stand to benefit.”
Despite Trump’s dig, Donnelly, like Schumer, didn’t slam the door on negotiations with Republicans.
“I continue to engage with my colleagues in the Senate and also with the White House to try to craft a tax reform bill....,” he said.
Other endangered Democrats were careful in talking about the Republican proposal. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., expressed an eagerness to work on rewriting the tax code, but was uneasy about the GOP bill in its current form.
"I support reform that simplifies our tax code, puts more money into the pockets of hardworking families, helps small businesses, and spurs job creation in Michigan," she said. "I am concerned that today’s proposal would give most of the benefits to those at the top and would take away important tax incentives for Michigan manufacturers."
Democrats are well aware that voting for lower taxes is good politics. Congressional Democrats have been partners in major tax overhauls for decades.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan easily pushed through Congress a tax plan with big income tax rate cuts. The House at the time had a Democratic majority. In the Senate, the measure was passed overwhelmingly, with most Democrats supporting it.
Democrats also joined Republicans in passing President George W. Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001, with 28 Democrats joining 211 Republicans in voting for the plan in the House. The Senate passed Bush’s plan on 58-33 vote, with 12 Democrats backing the cuts.
That’s why it was important Wednesday to look behind the partisan rhetoric.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., top Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said his party may have a negotiating partner in Trump. The president met with Ways and Means members from both parties Tuesday.
Neal said Trump indicated that he wanted a bipartisan deal.
"You get a better deal if it’s bipartisan," Trump said, according to Neal. The president earlier this month reached a deal with Democratic congressional leaders to provide aid to hurricane victims, increase the nation’s debt limit and fund the government for three months.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did criticize Democrats Wednesday, saying that they "have lost support for overhauling our tax code…throughout this process."
But he quickly added, "I hope they choose to work with us in a serious way."
Lesley Clark contributed to this story