Ways and Means Juggles Tax, Health Issues as Agenda Shifts

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By Laura Davison and Colleen Murphy

House Ways and Means Committee Republicans are re-evaluating the path forward to a comprehensive tax code rewrite amid changing priorities in Congress.

“After last week, we are reassessing everything right now, to be candid about it,” Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), who sits on Ways and Means, said March 28.

As the week began, a tax overhaul was the stated No. 1 agenda item for President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), after House Republicans failed to reach an agreement on a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But in a party-wide meeting early March 28, the focus for rank-and-file members was back on how to revive the health effort.

For Ways and Means members, charged with both health and tax legislation, the order in which they address these issues matters. Repealing the ACA and its nearly $1 trillion in associated taxes before taking up tax reform would allow them to make steeper cuts to the corporate and individual tax rates.

“We need to do this for the American people,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) said about repealing the health care law. “That should be the motivating factor, not an arbitrary baseline number. But it could impact that in a real way.”

Speaker Says

Ryan said Republicans are going to pursue a repeal bill, but didn’t commit to a timeline or specific legislation.

“I’m sure health care is still a priority, but tax reform is absolutely the top priority for Ways and Means,” Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) said.

And although there has been chatter about reviving a health care bill, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), also a committee member, said the GOP conference on March 28 didn’t result in an action plan—it was a chance for members to share their feelings, he said.

“There hasn’t been much discussion about how to proceed on this issue,” he said. “I don’t think there’s consensus on that yet.”

The multiple prerogatives in the House come as the White House says it is preparing to release a tax plan of its own. Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said March 27 that the president’s tax ideas agree with about 90 percent of the House GOP proposal.

But White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during a March 28 news briefing that the president is considering several tax options, including pairing tax legislation with a deal to fund infrastructure projects. Brady has said he prefers to keep a tax overhaul self-contained.

When asked if the administration is “driving the train” on tax legislation, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said, “I think they are, yes.”

Spicer has used that phrase to describe the White House’s role in the process. The president is expected to be presented with several plans on March 30.

Outreach to Democrats

An infrastructure plan could be a way to convince Democrats to support a tax overhaul effort. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ryan have discussed such a plan in years past. Trump hasn’t reached out to Schumer’s office, according to an aide.

Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) told Bloomberg BNA that bringing moderate Democrats on board for tax reform, though tricky, may be the key to passing a bill. Neither have yet heard House leadership bring up the idea.

“The well is deeper over there than in the Freedom Caucus; I think it’s a logical choice,” Rice said, referring to the group of hard-line Republicans who helped tank the House’s ACA repeal bill on March 24.

“If we’re going to do anything big—health care, tax reform, infrastructure—we must assemble a bipartisan coalition to ensure it’s durable sustainable reform,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) told Bloomberg BNA March 27. Dent is a member of the moderate group of Republicans known as the Tuesday Group.

Forward Motion

A proposal from the administration that greatly differs from the House GOP plan could redirect tax efforts in Congress, especially if lawmakers are hesitant to support a controversial border adjustability tax measure that puts a 20 percent levy on imports. Brady’s plans to cut corporate and individual tax rates could become less ambitious if the ACA taxes remain intact.

Brady said he remains confident that he can achieve the “once-in-a-generation” tax rewrite he has been pursuing since last summer.

“You always want momentum going into a major push,” he said. “Members are eager to get involved.”

With assistance from Alex Ruoff in Washington.

To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Davison in Washington at lDavison@bna.com and Colleen Murphy in Washington at cmurphy@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Meg Shreve at mshreve@bna.com

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