The House of Representatives took a step toward tax reform Thursday by passing a budget resolution, but grassroots conservatives are increasingly pessimistic that long-hoped-for tax cuts will ever become law.
Thursday's vote highlights the political challenges ahead. Twenty Republicans defected on the budget, mainly out of concern that the final tax reform package will include repeal of a tax provision that lets taxpayers deduct state and local taxes on their federal returns. That disproportionately hurts taxpayers in high-tax states.
What's more, some House conservatives grumbled about having to swallow the budget resolution passed by the Senate rather than the spending plan that the House adopted Oct. 5. Some members of the House Liberty Caucus voted "no," as a result.
Prospects seem even dicier in the Senate, where the loss of three Republicans would most likely kill the tax bill.
Conservatives fear a repeat of the protracted debate over Obamacare that resulted in an embarrassing failure to repeal the health law.
"Most of us have very low expectations for Congress at this point," said Mark Meckler, a Tea Party activist who is president of the Citizens for Self-Governance.
Michael Johns, president and executive director of Tea Party Community, said he is concerned that specific details of the tax plan could kill the entire endeavor, just as specific concerns over elements of the Obamacare repeal sank that effort. He called on President Donald Trump to ensure that popular tax breaks remain so members of Congress do not have an excuse to vote against it.
"It's really incumbent upon the administration to make sure there's no opposition to it on that basis," he said. "The key ... is to make sure there are no policy rebuttal positions."
David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, said Republicans should abandon the harder goal of tax reform and just focus on tax cuts.
"They could pass that easily," he said.
Political Stakes High The lack of confidence among conservatives is remarkable given how high the stakes are for congressional Republicans and Trump. Having failed on Obamacare repeal, tax reform is the GOP's last chance at passing major legislation before next year's midterm elections.
"There's an absolute, unambiguous obligation for every elected Republican to support the president's tax cuts and reforms," Johns said. "Trump's proposal is exactly what's needed to put rocket fuel into the economy and help the middle class."
"This was an enormous step in the direction toward getting comprehensive tax reform and tax cuts for middle class families over the line, into law, done."
Striking out on tax reform would represent an undeniable defeat for Trump. But conservative activists predicted the brunt of scorn would fall on Republican members of Congress.
Johns argued that the credibility of Congress has plummeted. Meckler agreed.
"The question is does President Trump bear the blame for that? I think the answer to that is an unequivocal 'no,'" he said.
He added: "We're not stupid. We understand the game that's played."
Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs of FreedomWorks, said the Obamacare failure created an "understandable distrust that Congress can get anything done." He said that failure makes tax reform more likely, given the political pressure. But he said it will not be easy.
"This thing is going to live and die several times before there is a final vote," he said.
Thursday's budget vote in the House was even closer than the 219-206 tally on the House version of the spending blueprint passed earlier this month. But House GOP leaders touted the result as an important step toward tax relief.
"This was an enormous step in the direction toward getting comprehensive tax reform and tax cuts for middle class families over the line, into law, done," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters after the vote.
Republicans Praise, Democrats Condemn Ryan said the House Ways and Means Committee would release specific tax legislation soon.
"This budget starts the process of actually going out and cutting taxes across the board so that middle class families can have a better opportunity for the American dream," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said during the floor debate.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, complained that the budget passed Thursday falls far short of the plan developed by the House, which contained instructions to trim $203 billion from mandatory spending and allowing repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
"So why are we voting on the Senate's?" he asked, "Because our Senate colleagues seem allergic sometimes to making tough choices."
But Walker voted "yea" on Thursday, nonetheless.
Any illusions Republicans might have had about bipartisanship evaporated during Thursday's debate. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the plan a "massive looting of the middle class."
A parade of Democrats piled on criticism. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) labeled the plan an "elixir of growth" that actually is a "fake, indeed dangerous, potion." Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) called it "snake oil" for the middle class. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) used a Halloween-themed metaphor -- "a monster that will scare children."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) called it an "extreme budget."
Democrats argued the Republican plan amounts to a $1.5 trillion giveaway to millionaires, billionaires and corporations that would raise taxes on some middle class taxpayers and explode the debt.
"If the Republicans would engage us, we could produce a bipartisan tax plan that would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for single individuals and the child tax credit for working families," Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said.
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