Politics

Trump tests the waters for bipartisan tax reform with White House dinner

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While most Democrats see the GOP’s tax reform effort as nothing more than a giveaway to the rich, a few red-state senators are at least willing to hear President Donald Trump out and three dined with him Tuesday evening to see if there is common ground on issues like retirement security and stopping the offshoring of jobs.

The senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — see little political downside in trying to hammer out a tax deal with Trump, given that they all face voters next year in states the president won handily.

“I wasn’t sent here to pick and choose who I want to work with. I was sent here to do the job for my state of West Virginia,” Manchin told reporters before the dinner.

For Trump, bringing the trio to the White House was his biggest step yet in reaching out to Democrats on the one major issue he and fellow Republicans might still score a victory on this year after the collapse of their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. At the same time, it could be a wake-up call to Republicans still smarting from his deal with Democrats to temporarily raise the debt ceiling and fund the government into December.

Trump will continue his outreach on Wednesday, when he is planning to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who heads the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short reached out to members to set up the meeting.

Short said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Tuesday that Trump wanted bipartisan support for a tax plan, after finding that Republicans were “not reliable” when it came to repealing Obamacare.

“We don’t feel like we can assume that we can get tax reform done strictly on a partisan basis,” he said.

Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp approached the dinner with Trump as an opportunity to find potential common ground on how to overhaul the tax code for the first time in more than three decades. They didn’t bring a heavy list of demands.

At the same time, what the three senators want out of a revamped tax system doesn’t sound all that different from their fellow Democrats — despite the fact they were the only three Democratic senators who declined to sign on to a letter laying out the party’s demands on tax reform.

Donnelly said in a statement that he wanted to work with the president on an issue that he said the two discussed over lunch some months ago — how tax reform can prevent companies from moving jobs offshore. The Indiana Democrat has worked on that issue for years, but a recent Associated Press report found that a Donnelly family business relied on Mexican labor.

“I want to make sure that we’re focusing on jobs in America and making sure that we can get a policy that makes sense, so I’m open-minded,” Donnelly said. “That’s why I didn’t sign that letter; I wanted to have a bipartisan process as we move forward.”

Heitkamp has said that any tax overhaul needs to protect working families and retirees, while Manchin added that he couldn’t back any tax overhaul that added to the federal debt and opposed using a budget process that would allow Republicans to rewrite the tax code with a simple majority in the Senate.

“Whatever we do can’t add more debt,” Manchin said, adding “Wall Street always seems to do well, no matter what’s done here. Main Street should have a chance to survive too and do well.”

But Manchin broke with his party by saying he was open to cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations in a revamped system.

“I’ve got some people who say, ‘Well, if you reduce 39.6 [percent] to 35, I can’t do that,’” Manchin said, referring to a potential cut in the top tax rate paid by individuals. “Well, if 35 brings in more than 39.6 because we got rid of a lot of the offsets and credits, I’m going to look at everything. That’s why I’m not going to sign on to an artificial letter.”

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) were also expected to attend the White House dinner, which came as an increasing number of Republicans say they’re interested in reaching across the aisle on tax reform and not long after the president struck a debt limit deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said GOP tax writers have long been trying to sound out their Democratic counterparts. “I would prefer this be bipartisan tax reform but, really, we’re hopeful that Democrats will bring us their ideas,” he said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders portrayed the invitation to the Democratic senators as part of Trump’s business style.

“The president, I think, has demonstrated both in his business world and as president that he can make deals, and that’s certainly what he’s looking to do,” she said at her daily briefing. “And he’s going to work hard to make sure that we get the best deal possible on tax reform. And I think that starts with things like tonight and having this conversation and moving that ball forward, working bipartisan support from both sides.”

But overall, congressional Democrats say they’ve seen little in the way of outreach from their GOP colleagues on the issue. Manchin added that he’s only heard from the White House — not GOP leadership on Capitol Hill — about tax reform, yet also got the impression that Trump believes Republicans can’t do a tax bill on their own.

“I think the president’s approaching it as he needs 60 votes,” Manchin said.

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