Politics

No Sign of Punishment for ‘No’ Votes on Tax Overhaul — Yet

Ryan had previously canceled fundraiser for vulnerable opponent of tax bill

Speaker Paul D. Ryan canceled a fundraiser for New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, above, after he voted against the tax bill last month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Among the 12 Republicans who voted against the tax bill on Tuesday are some of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents in 2018.

Democrats wasted no time attacking many of them after the vote. But there’s been a fear Republicans who voted “no” could take a hit from their own party, too.

It’s happened before. Speaker Paul D. Ryan canceled a fundraiser for New York Rep. Lee Zeldin after he voted against the tax bill in November.

With leadership on Tuesday finally getting the legislative win it wanted — and has argued it desperately needed for 2018 — there’s no immediate indication Republican opponents will be retaliated against.

[Vulnerable Republicans in Catch-22 on Tax Overhaul]

But as they compete for national resources in what’s increasingly looking like a difficult midterm environment for the House Republicans, it remains to be seen whether these Republicans could suffer consequences from their own party down the road.

Some Pushback?

Seven of the 12 Republicans who voted against the bill are in competitive races in 2018, according to race ratings from Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Watch: Four Things to Watch as 2018 Election Season Officially Nears

Two of them also hold leadership positions in the House GOP’s campaign committee. Zeldin is the finance chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, while fellow New Yorker Elise Stefanik heads recruitment.

In total, five Republicans from New York, two from California, four from New Jersey and one from North Carolina bucked their party to vote against the bill. Many were concerned about curtailing the state and local tax deduction, which they said could lead to an unfair tax burden for their constituents. North Carolina’s Walter B. Jones was concerned about the deficit.

It may be too early to tell whether these Republicans could face a backlash from their own party, and whether any pushback could have an impact in particularly tight races.   

The tax overhaul was a top priority for congressional Republicans. After Congress failed to pass a repeal of the 2010 health care law, Republicans acknowledged failing to pass something on taxes would endanger their majority.

Paradoxically, that put some of their most vulnerable members in a tough spot.

Some donors feel that members who opposed the tax bill don’t deserve their help.

“I think the people that are going against one of the main legislative goals are really going against what the party needs and shouldn’t be rewarded for that,” said Dan Eberhart, CEO of Canary LLC and a GOP donor.

Eberhart suggested some House Republicans, particularly those in leadership positions, could hold back sending money to those Republicans who voted against the bill.

But so far, there are no indications of retaliatory efforts underway.

Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, doesn’t have plans to close any district offices — in fact they’re opening more across the country.

The group does pick favorites, though.

“CLF will not spend a penny attacking these Republicans. However we will, as we look to allocate resources, we will certainly place the priority on friends and family first,” a CLF spokesperson said Tuesday.

There’s a precedent for CLF seeking retribution against members who buck leadership.

The GOP group, which plans to spend $100 million for 2018, closed its office in Iowa Rep. David Young’s district in March after he came out against an initial version of the GOP health care bill. (He later voted for the final version, but CLF didn’t reopen the office.)

Conservative outside groups, like Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, key-voted the tax bill. That means a vote against it will negatively affect these Republicans’ overall conservative rating.

But sources with AFP and the Club for Growth said that doesn’t necessarily mean they will support primary challengers against those lawmakers.

“We’ll be ready to hold both Republicans and Democrats accountable,” AFP’s vice president for public affairs Levi Russell wrote in an email. Russell said this and other key votes would help determine where the group deploys resources.  

A spokeswoman for America First Policies, an outside group aligned with President Donald Trump, said Monday that the group did not have any current plans for actions after Tuesday’s vote. It had spent $1 million on television, radio and digital advertising in 17 House districts and three states with key senators, urging lawmakers to back the bill in the days leading up to the vote.

Hard feelings

New York GOP Rep. Peter T. King said there were “really hard feelings” about punishment for members who voted against the plan last month.

Watch: Thunderous Applause As House Passes Tax Overhaul

That included the canceled Zeldin fundraiser and reports that House leadership weighed stripping New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of his Appropriations chairmanship.

King said such retribution could backfire, causing these members not to support leadership priorities moving forward.

Rep. Darrell Issa said such tactics had not worked in the past. The California Republican is in a Toss-Up race, according to Inside Elections, and he voted against the final tax bill.

“If they want to throw 13 seats away by punishing [lawmakers], it’s going to make no sense,” Issa said earlier this month. “Punishing people for what they believe is right inside the mainstream of our party has simply never worked out.”

Zeldin called Ryan’s decision to cancel his fundraiser “unfortunate” on Tuesday. He suggested he was punished for doing his job.

“I don’t represent Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. I represent New York’s 1st Congressional District,” Zeldin said. “And while I would respect my colleagues fighting for their home states, their home districts, I have a job, responsibility to do the same. And there certainly shouldn’t ever be any type of retribution for doing exactly what we’re elected to do.”

Zeldin said he hasn’t spoken to Ryan about that decision. The sophomore Republican didn’t have any indication there was more retribution to come.

‘Victory heals all wounds’

Republicans don’t seem worried that this vote will come around to hurt their members who voted “no.”

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former NRCC chairman, downplayed the idea of leadership seeking retribution against its own members.

Lee Zeldin is in a very competitive seat. And he’s going to get a lot of help from the NRCC, and nobody’s raising more money for the NRCC than the speaker,” he said Tuesday when asked about the canceled fundraiser.

Retribution is especially unlikely, he said, because Republicans succeeded on this vote.

“Frankly, victory heals all wounds. And the reality is we’re going to win,” the Oklahoma Republican said, noting that some members had to do what they thought was best for their districts.

“But none of our members who have felt the need to vote ‘no’ have put us in jeopardy or in a bad position,” he added.

Still, Republicans said leadership wanted all the votes they could get. Even Frank A. LoBiondo, who’s already announced he’s not seeking re-election next year, suggested he was pressured. He still voted no.

“It was not an easy vote. ... You’re never free,” he said Tuesday.

All the other GOP opponents of the bill are planning to run for re-election. NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt indicated in an email Tuesday that the committee would continue to back even those incumbents who voted against the tax bill.

“We view providing middle class tax relief as a winning issue and plan to run on it,” Hunt said. “Our primary objective is to make sure Republicans win races and Nancy Pelosi never gets the gavel back.”

So far leadership has indicated it will support its members going into 2018.

A source with Ryan’s political team said the speaker will support the GOP incumbents running for re-election. The source pointed out that all members benefit from the more than $30 million Ryan has so far transferred to the NRCC.

Frelinghuysen is facing his first competitive race in years. He’s taken heat from Democrats for supporting leadership’s health care bill earlier this year. But on the tax bill, he bucked his own party. Wealthy, suburban voters in his district are some of the biggest beneficiaries of the state and local tax deduction.

After his initial vote against the tax bill in November, Politico reported that GOP leadership had explored stripping him of his gavel. 

On Tuesday, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said he was aware of Frelinghuysen's plans to vote against the tax bill and said he supported him remaining chairman.

“He and I had a one on one conversation a while back,” the Louisiana Republican said. “There was no surprise that he was a no vote on the original bill and was going to be a no vote on the conference [report].”  

For his part, Frelinghuysen didn’t directly answer questions about his vote and threats to his chairmanship Tuesday.

“I’m focusing on doing all of our appropriations bills. That’s what I’m focused on, getting the work done,” he said after Tuesday’s vote.

Asked if Ryan had spoken to him about his vote, he laughed and said, “Not recently.”

Lindsey McPherson, David Hawkings and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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