White House woos Senate Democrats on taxes, but gets little love

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill spoke at a recent town hall at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence.
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill spoke at a recent town hall at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence.

Sen. Claire McCaskill plans to head to the White House Wednesday to talk taxes, two days after a private dinner with Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner to discuss the same topic.

Other Democrats in Trump-friendly states were also at the dinner. Still more will be at the Wednesday meeting.

It’s all part of a White House push to woo Senate Democrats in states Trump won last year, states where their re-election bids are shaky — as well as a concession the Trump administration is wary that Senate Republicans can push a bill to the finish line.

So far, the Democrats are uniformly skeptical they can find common ground.

It’s “very difficult to discuss what if anything we can agree to, when they don’t have a plan,” McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

She was particularly concerned that the administration is being too generous with its corporate tax breaks, and not offering enough child care tax credits. She welcomed the opportunity to speak with Trump directly.

“We need to know specifics of how this is going to help people living paycheck to paycheck instead of millionaires and billionaires,” McCaskill said. She’ll be at the Wednesday meeting along with fellow Republican and Democratic members of the Senate’s tax-writing finance committee.

The White House has sought to court Democrats for months to join the tax overhaul effort, continuing a pattern that first became evident last month. Trump made a deal with Democratic leaders on a package that included aid for hurricane victims, three more months of government funding and an extension of the nation’s debt ceiling. And they reached an understanding on changes in immigration laws.

Still, finance committee Democrats shared McCaskill’s skepticism about a White House tax plan. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who both face re-election in states Trump won last year, both said they’re concerned by the lack of details.

“The president has said this is not going to be a tax break for the rich, but it’s going to be for the middle class,” Brown said. “We want to hold him to that, because what we’ve seen so far is tax breaks for the rich and maybe even tax increases for the middle class. We’ll never go for that.”

Stabenow said she has to believe that the White House outreach is a good faith effort. But she’s skeptical because so far, Senate Republicans have shut Democrats out of the process.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a finance committee member, is also expected at the White House meeting.

The Republican-led Senate Tuesday advanced a budget that would allow them to pass a tax overhaul with just a simple majority, and a final vote on the procedure is expected Thursday.

“What makes it difficult to trust is that they’re moving forward with the most partisan process possible,” Stabenow said.

McCaskill was one of three Democrats at the dinner hosted Monday night by Ivanka Trump and her husband. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., came too, according to a source familiar with the dinner.

All three face tough re-election battles in 2018 in states Trump won in November. A conservative group Tuesday began running ads against Manchin, Heitkamp and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, pressing them to back the Republican plan.

Manchin, who had dinner several weeks ago at the White House with Trump, said Trump insists his plan is “not a tax break for the rich or the wealthy.” And yet, that’s what Congress is writing, he said.

“We need the White House to inject now and say, whoa, hold on, let's make sure we make some adjustments here,” Manchin told CNN. “We're very hopeful that gets done.”

Also attending were members of the Trump administration, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, along with Republican senators Dean Heller of Nevada, Mike Lee of Utah, David Perdue of Georgia, Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the source said.

McCaskill said the lawmakers raised several issues with the administration’s tax proposal, and Mnuchin told them, “Well, yeah, we’re going to change that,’ or ‘Yes, we’re going to change that,’ or ‘Yes, we’re going to do that.’’’

The issues that Democrats raised included Republican plans to change the tax rate for pass-through entities such as limited liability companies and limited partnerships to 25 percent, a big tax reduction, McCaskill said. She said 80 percent of the benefit of the pass-through cut “will go to millionaires and above.”

McCaskill said attendees at the dinner also talked about the federal child tax credit. The credit is worth up to $1,000 per child under age 17 claimed on a worker’s tax return. Ivanka Trump wants to expand the credit.

Everyone at the table was saying the right thing, McCaskill said. Trust is in short supply, however, because much of the talks have been conducted behind closed doors and Republicans are pursuing a vote that would prevent Democrats from filibustering the legislation.

Democrats have made it clear for some time what they want in a tax overhaul. Forty-three Democrats and the two independents that caucus with them wrote a letter in August to Trump and the Senate Republican leadership, saying they wanted to work together but could not stomach tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent, nor legislation that increases the debt or deficit.

Trump in a visit to Missouri urged voters to oust McCaskill if she did not back his plan. She has said she wants to work with Trump on overhauling the tax system, but at town halls in Missouri, she’s been critical of the administration’s current proposal, which she likened to controversial supply-side tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in neighboring Kansas.

Bipartisanship is possible, noted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, pointing to an agreement announced Tuesday between Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and Patty Murray, D-Wash., to pay for subsidies that help people purchase Obamcare health plans.

“Just as working in a narrow partisan way put the Republicans in a box canyon on health care, the same thing will happen on tax reform,” Schumer said, adding that if Republicans don’t pursue a proposal that helps the rich and cuts Medicaid and Medicare, “we will work with them. We are not here to obstruct.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

The Trump administration unveiled its tax overhaul plan April 26 during the daily press briefing. White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said the plan is “the most significant tax reform legislations since 1986.”