President Donald Trump is sending mixed messages to incumbent Senate Democrats up for re-election in red states as he and GOP leaders try to woo bipartisan support for a major tax overhaul package.
With his public calls for centrist Democrats to support an emerging GOP tax plan, Trump has underscored his desire to cement a legislative victory before the 2018 midterm elections. But Democrats wonder if he is sincere or if he simply intends to attack them, as he did last week by calling out Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, during a tax speech in her home state.
Trump’s latest overture involves Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who plans to travel Wednesday with the president aboard Air Force One to her home state of North Dakota, according to White House and congressional aides. There Trump will deliver the second in a series of sales pitches on the need for a tax overhaul.
Based on Heitkamp’s past statements about tax changes, Trump’s team has “some optimism” that she will be able to support the coming overhaul package, a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said he’s hopeful that Trump can make headway among centrist Democrats — a group that the president so far has found elusive — and acknowledged the challenge of trying to get them on board despite his tough talk and tactics.
“I think people make some allowances for it,” Hatch said about Trump’s rhetoric.
As for Democrats, the Senate’s top tax writer said, “I am hopeful that they will come out of their closet and help us to put together a good tax reform bill.”
But Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, criticized Trump and GOP leaders for not scheduling meetings with Democrats to discuss taxes. Trump met Tuesday at the White House with the “Big Six” group that has been negotiating tax issues. The group includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Hatch, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.
“We’re off to a very bad start,” Schumer said.
Several centrist Democratic senators up for re-election, such as McCaskill, Heitkamp and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, say they are open to bipartisan tax talks. But they have indicated that they want to determine if Republicans will seek compromise or just look to score political points.
At his speech in Missouri last week, Trump took a swipe at McCaskill and told the audience that their senator should support the tax overhaul, “and if she doesn’t do it for you, you have to have to vote her out of office.”
The GOP’s reconciliation strategy on taxes would not require any Democratic votes, if Republicans are unified. But the Senate GOP’s meltdown on plans to repeal and replace the 2010 health care overhaul has raised questions about whether Republicans could lose some of their own senators and would need Democratic support for a tax bill.
According to excerpts of his speech shared by White House officials, Trump will pressure Democrats to support the coming tax bill. He will point out that the last few major tax overhauls were passed with bipartisan support.
Heitkamp, in an interview, voiced skepticism about whether there would be a GOP charm offensive behind the scenes, since Republicans aim to move a tax package on a reconciliation bill that can pass the Senate by simple majority vote.
“I believe that any tax structure has to work for working families in my state. And it has to work for small businesses in my state, which is one of my main concerns,” said Heitkamp, who is a former state tax commissioner.
Republicans hold a 52-48 advantage in the Senate, and the party of the incumbent president typically loses seats in midterm elections. Ten of the 25 seats that Democrats are defending next year are in states that Trump won, including North Dakota, where he won 63 percent of the vote.
Helping the middle class
Like Heitkamp, Manchin is eyeing incentives for families and small businesses in his home state. “I hope that we can get together on what needs to be done,” he said.
But Manchin also argues for a tax package that does not increase the deficit, echoing a demand by Democratic leaders. He said he hoped Republicans would “make a commitment to no more debt.”
In a joint letter sent last month to McConnell, Senate Democrats called for regular-order tax legislation to move through committees and vowed to oppose any net tax hike for middle-class families, any tax cuts for the top 1 percent of earners and any “deficit-financed tax cuts, which would endanger critical programs” including entitlements.
Manchin also says a tax package should address income inequality.
“We’ve got to balance this out,” he said.
Manchin voiced support for a reduction in the corporate tax rate, now at 35 percent, but stopped short of backing the House GOP’s goal of a 20 percent corporate rate or Trump's call for a 15 percent unified rate for corporations and owners of pass-through businesses. Owners of pass-through businesses, such as many law firms, real estate companies and hedge funds, pay the top individual tax rate of 39.6 percent on their business profits.
— John T. Bennett contributed to this report.