President Trump is under pressure to deliver a big win for Republicans on taxes.
The GOP this week will dive headfirst into an overhaul of the tax code, a goal that has eluded the party for a generation. The House Ways and Means Committee is slated to release the text of legislation on Wednesday.
The message from Republicans is loud and clear: they need to Trump to be energetic, focused and disciplined to help get the plan across the finish line.
“It does take presidential leadership. Getting something like this done, which hasn’t been done since 1986,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanBudget vote raises red flag for GOP on tax reform Dems yearn for days of GOP deficit hawks Ryan: FBI will hand over documents related to Trump-Russia dossier MORE (R-Wis.) said this month.
During the first nine months of his presidency, Trump has at times struggled to use his bully pulpit to advance his legislative agenda.
He has at times fanned the flames of messy personal feuds, distracting from the GOP efforts on healthcare and taxes, while making unwanted forays into the bill-writing process. And while he’s hit the road to promote his policies, Trump’s events often generate headlines unrelated to the agenda.
All of that will need to change for the tax overhaul to succeed, Republicans say.
Tax reform is seen as the last, best hope for Trump and the GOP to score a major legislative victory before next year’s midterm elections.
Republicans fear that without a win on taxes, they will fail to persuade voters that they deserve to hold onto power. Tensions in the party, which are already running high, could explode if tax legislation fails.
Leaders in Congress will begin the tax push shorthanded; they plan to unveil their proposal just before Trump leaves on Nov. 3 for a 12-day trip to Asia.
That means the president will be on the other side of the world and at least a dozen time zones away — far removed from the earliest stages of the tax battle in Washington.
Many party bigwigs believe the president’s voice is needed to make the case the tax overhaul will help Americans.
“The president needs to go around the country and remind people the main reason we are doing this is to maximize economic growth,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former congressman.
Trump campaigned for the White House on a promise to help working- and middle-class Americans and has pitched the tax plan as a boon for those people who supported him last November.
If Trump does not play the role of salesman-in-chief, Weber said, Democrats may succeed in undercutting that claim and defining the plan as a giveaway to the wealthy, a label that could sink the proposal.
Trump has gotten an early start promoting the tax plan, holding events in Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, and Pennsylvania since late August. The White House has tried to get him on the road at least once a week to sell the plan, though it hasn’t always met that goal.
The White House defended Trump’s engagement on tax reform, noting he has made speeches in Washington, called lawmakers and met with key stakeholders at the White House in addition to his travel. Hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico have also altered his travel schedule.
A White House official said Trump will “still be following and actively participating in the tax-reform discussion” during his Asia trip and plans to increase his own tax-related travel after he returns.
While he is away, the president is dispatching Cabinet members and other senior officials to travel around the country to plug the tax plan. Some Cabinet members will make stops in place Trump has already visited, part of a so-called “second wave” designed to drive home his message.
But even if Trump does hit the road more often, some Republicans worry about his ability to stay focused on a consistent message.
GOP strategist John Feehery said more presidential travel wouldn’t necessarily help the tax-reform effort because Trump “tends to stray off into other topics when he does that.” (Feehery is a columnist for The Hill.)
Ryan made light of those concerns week when he joked with a reporter who asked if he worries Trump might tweet or say something critical of the tax plan once it is released.
“He’s going to be in Asia, number one,” the Speaker said, prompting laughter at his weekly news conference.
“I’m just kidding, that was kind of a joke,” Ryan continued. “I was just sort of joking on that one.”
Ryan said House tax writers and “working very, very closely with the White House” and has previously praised Trump’s level of involvement, calling it on par with Ronald Reagan’s in 1986.
But worries about Trump’s unpredictability burst out into the open this week after the president waffled over whether the tax plan should change popular 401(k) retirement accounts.
Trump on Monday appeared to take a hard line against changing the rules for retirement plans, tweeting that “there will be NO change to your 401(k).”
By Wednesday, the president softened his position, signaled he was open to changing the 401(k) accounts. “Maybe we’ll use it as negotiating,” he told reporters at the White House.
Republicans appear to be considering a change that would limit the amount of pre-tax money workers can contribute to 401(k)s, instead shifting people toward Roth IRA accounts.
While the idea is controversial, passing tax legislation will require difficult trade-offs.
Republicans expressed near universal agreement that drawing red lines on specific tax provisions this early in the process is unhelpful.
“I think the advice that we’re hearing from everybody is to keep your powder dry,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynAdvocates pan Trump effort on opioid crisis Dallas Morning News: Cornyn ‘betrays’ GOP by backing Roy Moore Overnight Finance: House adopts Senate budget, taking step to tax reform | GOP worries Trump feuds will endanger tax plan | Trump talks NAFTA withdrawal with senators | Treasury calls for looser oversight of insurers MORE (R-Texas) said this week when asked if he has a sense what the White House wants in the bill.
“This is going to be a package, and don’t take yourself off the playing field by saying that if one thing happens to be in there or not in there, that you’re not going to participate,” the senator added.
GOP lawmakers and strategists say good thing if the president’s advisers are involved in the legislative process to give lawmakers a clear sense of the White House’s priorities.
But Weber warned that if the rules out too many provisions, “we may find ourselves in a position where we can’t get a bill that can get 51 votes,” referring to the Senate.
The former lawmaker said Trump can be constructive, citing his constant haranguing for the GOP’s accelerated timetable to pass the tax plan this year.
“He has lit a fire under them as far as the schedule,” Weber said.
The president, for his part, has made it clear he will blame GOP members of Congress if the tax push fails.
“I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest,” he said during a Cabinet meeting earlier this month.
“You better get it passed,” he said during a tax speech in Harrisburg, Pa.
Jordain Carney contributed.
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