White House

Trump’s strategy on tax reform has him berating Democrats

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Congressional leaders and administration officials on tax reform, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Congressional leaders and administration officials on tax reform, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in Washington. AP

Republican lawmakers pushed the president to hit the road to sell the nation on his next big legislative proposal. But, like most things with Donald Trump, it hasn’t gone exactly as they expected.

Trump launched a series of campaign-style rallies last week to urge an update of the U.S. tax code but along the way he’s berating the Democratic lawmakers he needs to woo.

“From day to day he’s on attack, either members of his own party or the other party and I don't think that's necessarily how you build a winning coalition,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. said.

It’s a risky strategy that some senators from both parties find unwelcome, including Republicans who urged him to do more after this summer’s failure to pass a health care law. Republicans know they may not be able to pass any legislation without Democrats, some of whom have suggested they’d be willing to consider working on the thorny tax issue.

“The way Trump’s populist schtick works is to bully people into cooperation and unleash voter anger on anyone who doesn’t go along with him,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist based in Sacramento. “This may end up being effective but will likely inhibit productive bipartisan processes. The president is clearly going to stay in permanent campaign mode where he needs foils to rally his base against.”

Trump will take two steps Wednesday to attract bipartisan support for his agenda. First he’ll meet at the White House with congressional leaders from both parties.

He met with congressional leaders and tax reform negotiators late Tuesday at the White House to tout a deal that would include making the code “as simple as possible,” providing "tax relief for middle class workers and families," and restoring a “competitive edge.” But he only invited Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said tax talks were already “off to a very bad start" because Trump invited only Republicans to talk taxes.

“An effort like this requires two parties, and the results for the American people will be better if we all work together,” Schumer said.

After Wednesday’s congressional meeting, Trump heads for North Dakota, the second stop on his tax reform tour.

Trump will continue to chide Democrats, telling them that “if they don't want to bring back your jobs, voters should deliver a clear message: Do your job, deliver for America or find another job,” according to an excerpt of his speech provided by the White House.

Yet Trump will be accompanied by Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who the White House suggested may be willing to work with Trump on tax reform. Heitkamp is up for re-election in a state Trump won by 36 percentage points.

Last week, Trump visited Missouri, home to another vulnerable Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, who wanted to work on tax reform. The president suggested voters might want to replace her. “We must lower our taxes and your senator, Claire McCaskill, she must do this for you, and if she doesn’t, you have to vote her out of office,” he said.

McCaskill's office did not respond to Trump's jab, instead directing reporters to a statement sent before the president's visit. In it, McCaskill called tax reform "an area on which I'm optimistic President Trump and I will find common ground.”

Republicans are also taking particular interest in Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Both declined to sign a Senate Democratic caucus letter to Trump and congressional leaders vowing to oppose a tax plan that adds to the deficit or cuts taxes for the wealthy. Heitkamp, too, declined to sign the letter.

A senior administration official noted on a call with reporters Tuesday that a Democratic senator from North Dakota had been among those voting for President Ronald Reagan's 1986 tax package. “This year Sen. Heitkamp will have an opportunity to continue North Dakota's legacy of bipartisan support,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the upcoming trip.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a frequent Trump foil, said it was too early to determine if Trump's outreach will work. He suggested his party had grown accustomed to Trump’s critiques. “He went after a Democrat? I'm astonished. I thought he went after Republicans," McCain said laughing.

Tax overhauls are traditionally a bipartisan affair, and with votes from members of both parties a bill can be more comprehensive. Republicans have said they want a permanent tax cut, beyond President George W. Bush’s 10-year tax cut plan in 2001.

A more ambitious plan would require 60 votes, meaning Trump would need at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate.

Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs told reporters in August he was “confident” that the White House would attract a number of Democrats. The White House has “learned how difficult it is to thread the needle with 52 senators,” Short said.

The White House expects Trump to continue to travel around the country “and take his vision to the people,” almost every week, the senior administration official.

Republicans welcome Trump’s involvement – greater involvement that he’s shown in previous issues – even if it comes with Trump’s blunt language.

“It's important that he remind those Democrats and remind their constituents as well (of his case for tax reform), especially Democrats who are in traditionally red-leaning state,” Republican strategist Kevin Madden said.

“The polling on tax reform back up the strategy. Voters in these states where the president is making his pitch have made it known that reforming the tax code is an important priority.”

Republican strategist Doug Heye said it’s a good sign that Trump is willing to get “his hands dirty” after he failed to put much effort into passing health care.

But, he said, “if we learned one thing it’s that Donald Trump is going to to things differently than his predecessors,” he said. “Trump is going to do it louder – there’s no surprise there.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Trump's engagement is a “good thing” but that Trump can only do so much when it comes to cajoling Democrats.

“I think people realize that we're getting into a little bit of an election season and people make some allowances for that,” Hatch said of Trump's approach to McCaskill.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark