Despite assurances from President Trump that he has great unity with his Republican Party and optimism that tax reform are imminent on the horizon, a number of worries are arising among members of Congress, their political advisers and the independent outside groups trying to shepherd the project to the finish line.
So serious is the nervousness that one group, backed by the billionaire small-government brothers Charles and David Koch, is announcing a $1.6 million advertising blitz for Wisconsin on Thursday. The goal, officials say, is to either convince Sen. Tammy Baldwin to support the tax reform this year or to damage the Democrat’s re-election odds next year.
“The hardworking folks simply can’t afford to be sending more to Washington. If Tammy Baldwin opposes tax reform, it’s proof that she opposes jobs. She opposes higher wages,” a Wisconsin businessman says in one of the two, 30-second ads.
In the other spot, the narrator says Baldwin is part of a rigged system standing in the way of lower taxes. The rhetoric of Washington-versus-the people has been at the fore of Koch advertising in recent weeks, including a six-figure ad blitz in the Washington area shaming lawmakers for listening to lobbyists.
It’s standard fare, but remarkable because it joins the now-$10 million the Koch-backed network of policy and political organizations have spent trying to push an overhaul to the tax system. Lawmakers face a steep hill to get the tax reform legislation across the finish line by the end of the year. Failing to do so, however, could carry a steeper price when voters next year consider if the all-Republican Washington deserves to hold onto power.
The threat or returning to the political minority consumes much of the wise pollsters and consultants around the Republican caucus at the Capitol. Republicans took back the House with 2010’s Tea Party wave and the Senate in 2014. They campaigned on the promise of a conservative agenda, only to run into the wall of Barack Obama’s White House. The GOP switched its tune, saying they could only get things done with a Republican President.
That has not helped.
Trump visited Senate Republicans on Tuesday in what he described as a “love fest” that featured cheers and standing ovations. (Former White House photographer Pete Souza, who worked for Barack Obama, posted a photograph of Senate Republicans showing the same respect for the Democratic President in 2009.)
Senate officials, however, were flummoxed by the move and frustrated by the President’s comments. Several described a campaign-style speech that listed some of Trump’s greatest hits without worrying too much about the details on a tax plan the President was asking them to back. How it helped win a legislative win for Republicans in Congress was anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, several members of GOP Leadership were grimacing that the President was focused on personal feuds with two of their colleagues, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. Both have now announced their retirements from Congress rather than face voters next year, and several Republican strategists suspect they won’t be the last. Corker, the chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations panel in the Senate, and Flake have been frequent targets of Trump’s tirades, and they have started hitting back.
Members of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s inner-circle smile when they see the fire in Corker and Flake, as well as recent comments from former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But the truth telling also threatens the party’s ability to deliver tax cuts this year. For many in the best GOP offices, the fight over the party’s future can wait until they have delivered on at least one hallmark promise — one on which they and their outside allies can point to when they face voters next year.
Even with 52 votes in the Senate, Republicans are still not assured they can get to 50 ayes to clear the tax package. (Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, would break the tie and put it over the edge.) For one, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi has faced health challenges this year. Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama will see his appointment expire when voters in Dixie elect a permanent replacement for Jeff Sessions, who stepped away from the Senate to become the nation’s Attorney General. Republican nominee Roy Moore is not a guaranteed supporter.
At the same time, Corker and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are no fan of the tax plan’s red ink, Flake could balk at it as well and McCain has been fighting cancer. The Republicans could already be well below 50 votes before they even have a firm grasp on the plan.
For his part, the President is not much better. Before leaving for Texas on Wednesday afternoon, Trump met for an impromptu 15-minute news conference on the South Lawn. During that time, he disagreed with House Budget Committee Chairman Kevin Brady on how retirement funds would fare in the tax plan, bet Flake would vote for it and said he enjoyed a chat with McCain a day earlier. He then said he wanted to negotiate with Brady, called Flake’s book “horrible” and blamed the media for reports of division within GOP ranks.
Then, after a broadside against his 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Trump said he wanted Democrats to vote for the tax cuts, too. While admitting he hasn’t started working those Democrats for their support, he offered a warning. “If they don’t vote for these massive tax cuts for business, for jobs and for the middle class, they will lose their races in ’18,” the President predicted before pacing to his waiting helicopter.
The Koch-backed groups disagree with the President’s tone. But they share his assessment of Democrats’ potential weakness on this issue. It remains to be seen if the Democrats do, too.