Trump Aims to Pressure Democrats on Taxes
President Trump seized the bully pulpit in Indianapolis Wednesday to rally support for the GOP's newly unveiled tax proposal, hoping to boost his chances for achieving the first major legislative victory of his tenure.
But he also used the occasion to fire a threat at the Hoosier State’s incumbent Democratic senator, who had traveled to the rally with him on Air Force One.
“If Senator Donnelly doesn’t approve it, because you know he’s on the other side, we will come here. We will campaign against him like you wouldn’t believe,” Trump told the crowd in the state’s capital.
It was the third tax reform rally Trump has held in states that voted for him but have Democratic senators up for re-election -- he also visited Missouri in August and North Dakota earlier this month. In the former, he said that if Claire McCaskill didn’t support his tax plan, “you have to vote her out of office.” In the latter, he brought Heidi Heitkamp on stage and called her a “good woman,” but said of any lawmaker who votes against his tax plan, “You’ve got to vote against them and get them out of office.”
In Indiana, Trump twice said he believed there would be “numerous Democrats” supporting his legislation “because it’s the right thing to do.”
For Trump and congressional Republicans, the strategy has both legislative and political upsides. GOP leaders plan to use the same budget procedure for their tax plan they tried on health care to avoid a filibuster and require just 51 votes for passage. But their Obamacare repeal efforts failed because of their narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate and trouble reaching consensus between the ideological end points of the conference. Even minimal Democratic support could provide a wider buffer for success on taxes. Politically, they are setting the stage to squeeze Democratic incumbents in Trump states, hoping to use taxes against them if they don’t support the GOP plan.
“It’s not up to us, it’s up to Democrats whether they want to participate or not,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip.
Heitkamp and Donnelly have both signaled openness to supporting a tax plan. And neither senator signed a letter from 45 of their Democratic colleagues earlier this year laying out principles on tax reform -- West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin also declined to sign. Supporting the GOP proposal after the president has courted them could give those lawmakers significant credibility with Trump supporters in their states.
In general, Democrats were varied in their responses to the proposal issued Wednesday -- not in the form of legislation but rather a nine-page outline of principles, including: cutting the corporate rate to 20 percent; reducing the pass-through business rate to 25 percent; narrowing tax brackets for individuals to just three; slightly lowering the top rate and slightly raising the lowest rate; and doubling the standard deduction, among myriad other changes.
Democratic leaders and many of their rank-and-file members slammed the proposal shortly after its release. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it “tax cuts for the special interest and the high end,” and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said it was a plan designed to be “cheered in the country clubs and corporate boardrooms.”
But Senate Democrats facing re-election were more reserved. Most didn’t come out explicitly for or against the proposal, instead holding out for a more detailed version and clinging carefully to their stated priorities of not lowering taxes for the wealthy but focusing on workers and the middle class.
“I’m still taking a look at it, but I’m very concerned about how it affects Michigan as a manufacturing state,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow told RealClearPolitics. “It is very skewed to the wealthy and high-income individuals. I haven’t had a chance to look at it in detail, but I do have concerns.”
Heitkamp, who traveled with Trump when he visited North Dakota, said in a statement she understands why the tax code needs to be reformed, but noting that her priorities would be a “level playing field for workers, families and retirees.”
“As we continue to learn more about the president’s tax reform plan, the devil remains in the details -- and we still need more details,” she said.
Donnelly said it was an “honor” to welcome Trump to Indiana, but his comment came before the proposal was released, and he didn’t weigh in on the specifics of the GOP plan.
“I believe tax reform should include policies that will benefit working and middle-class families, create new jobs and protect existing jobs,” Donnelly said.
Other incumbents, however, were a bit more direct in their criticism. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said he didn’t think Republicans were focused on the middle class, and the proposal didn’t appear to be something he could support. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida echoed those concerns.
“It’s not what the president had said he wanted,” Nelson told RCP. “He wanted a middle-class tax cut. That’s not what this is.”
Still, Wednesday’s release was simply the opening salvo in what will likely become a lengthy and arduous debate. Trump’s legislative director, Marc Short, said earlier this month the administration wasn’t confident it could pass a tax bill on a strictly partisan basis, and that it was “wise” to court Democrats. John Ashbrook, a Senate Republican strategist and former top aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, praised Trump for targeting opposition party incumbents.
“It’s really smart to go after Democrats because Democrats for years have indicated they’d be willing to cut tax rates under the right circumstances, and now is as good a time as any to find out whether they’re serious or they were full of it,” Ashbrook said.
Still, Democrats think Republicans’ failure to pass an Obamacare repeal on a purely partisan basis sets the stage for the same thing to happen on taxes. Sen. Brian Schatz told RCP that the GOP health care bill was “so egregious” that it was easy for his party to stay united against it. He said their ability to stay united on taxes would depend entirely on the proposal. And Democrats believe that if Republicans can’t pass a tax bill on their own, Trump’s outreach to the minority will give them ample leverage to reshape the legislation.
“Donald Trump seems to think he’s playing with a full hand of cards, but the fact is he doesn’t even have a pair,” said one Democratic strategist working on Senate races. “I think Democrats can either make this something that’s better for their constituents, or go back home and say I tried but there’s no negotiating with these people who want to raise taxes on middle-class Americans.”