Tax overhaul, must-do bills await Congress
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers returning from recess after Labor Day will confront a pile of bills they must approve. They’ll also face another stack of work they’ve promised to tackle.
Worried about the Republican Senate’s ability to deliver on big campaign promises, the White House and its allies are making a strong push to get at least three vulnerable Senate Democrats to back the administration’s tax overhaul agenda.
The shaky Democrats, all up for re-election next year in states that President Donald Trump won handily, have already signaled interest in working across the aisle — even as their Democratic colleagues have urged unity in fighting any GOP tax plan that disproportionately helps the rich.
“We are confident right now that we will be able to earn [Democrats’] support with our tax reform agenda,” said Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs. Administration officials, he said, have had discussions with vulnerable Senate and House Democrats.
Republicans were particularly cheered when Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia declined to sign a Senate Democratic caucus letter to Trump and congressional leaders detailing what is not acceptable in a tax plan, notably a tax cut for the top 1 percent of Americans. Every other Democrat and the two independent senators who caucus with them signed the letter.
Instead, Manchin said in a statement that he’s “particularly excited” to work on the tax code with Trump, who crushed Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton in West Virginia, winning 68 percent of the vote.
Trump drew thousands to a rally in Huntington on Thursday night, celebrating the decision Thursday by West Virginia’s Democratic governor, Jim Justice, to change party affiliation and become a Republican.
In Washington, Manchin dismissed the Democratic tax letter as a stunt.
“Press releases don’t solve problems, people do,” he said. “Now is not the time to make tax reform harder. Now is the time to get everyone involved and put everything on the table.”
Heitkamp is up for re-election in a state Trump won by 36 percentage points. She declined to sign the letter, saying, “We shouldn’t prejudge any of this.” Donnelly represents Indiana, where Trump won by 19 percentage points.
The pitch to Senate Democrats comes as Republicans have struggled to reach consensus within their own ranks and give Trump a big legislative victory. A yearslong pledge to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act collapsed in the Senate last month when three Republicans rejected the GOP leadership’s initiative.
But core principles of the tax overhaul remain unresolved, including whether the effort would raise the budget deficit. Crucial details must be settled, among them how far to lower rates and which tax credits and deductions would be erased. The last time those problems were reconciled and the tax code broadly reshaped was 1986.
Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he’ll try to use a procedural maneuver to allow debate on the tax overhaul to be cut off with 51 votes instead of the traditional 60, Republicans hold a narrow margin of just 52 seats in the chamber. That means Democrats could cast deciding votes.
The White House has “learned how difficult it is to thread the needle with 52 senators,” Short said.
The administration has already had conversations with more than 200 members of Congress, including members of the House’s Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats and the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of Republicans and Democrats. The administration has also spoken with red state Senate Democrats, Short said.
Two must-do items will dominate Congress’ September agenda: increasing the government’s debt limit to prevent a federal default and passing a temporary spending bill to avert a government shutdown.
Many Republicans can’t bring themselves to back a debt limit boost. But they run the government, and it’s their responsibility to deliver those votes. Democratic support will be required, and some hope they’ll win concessions in exchange.
A stopgap measure will be needed because the 12 annual spending bills are behind schedule. There’s no agreement on their overall price tag, which will be in the $1 trillion-plus range.
One wild card is whether Trump will press to fund the U.S.-Mexico border wall he’s pledged. That could spark a confrontation with Democrats.
The Senate aims to approve the annual defense policy bill in September. That’s when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., expects to return to Washington after starting brain cancer treatment. He and McConnell wanted to pass the bill last month, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., thwarted that plan. Paul wants votes on amendments on indefinite detention and war authorization.
McCain has warned he’ll use the bill to map a strategy for Afghanistan if Trump fails to develop a plan.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating whether Russia worked with Trump’s presidential campaign to try to help him win the election. The FBI and Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller are also investigating.
Trump has repeatedly called the issue “fake news” and a “witch hunt.”
Lawmakers from both parties seem determined to press on. Senators introduced bipartisan bills last week creating judicial review procedures that could shield Mueller from firing by Trump.
Lawmakers hope to approve a bipartisan bill speeding federal approval of projects to export liquefied natural gas and boosting energy sources and efficiency.
Republicans also want to roll back the Endangered Species Act, saying it hinders drilling and logging.
And several programs expire Sept. 30, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a Democratic favorite.
Also facing expiration are federal flood insurance and programs run by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Conservatives chafe at renewing flood insurance, which is $25 billion in debt. FAA renewal is stuck over a plan to transfer the agency’s air traffic control system to a private nonprofit organization.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., responds to questions July 11 during a TV news interview on Capitol Hill in Washington. Manchin is one of the Democratic senators who declined to sign a Senate Democratic caucus letter to Trump and congressional leaders detailing what is not acceptable in a tax plan, notably a tax cut for the top 1 percent of Americans.