House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady has spent the better part of a year crafting a Republican tax reform bill. But on the cusp of the plan’s long-awaited unveiling, the House GOP’s point man on taxes has had to retool the proposal at least twice in 48 hours.
First, President Donald Trump rejected one key element of his proposal. Then a handful of Republicans threatened to hold up the budget — and delay tax reform altogether — unless he promised to leave their favorite tax break alone.
And the bill hasn’t even been made public yet.
Brady, an 11-term lawmaker from suburban Houston, is on the verge of one of the hardest assignments handed to any House member in years: shepherding a tax bill through his chamber that will, by necessity, have to gore more than a few oxen.
The job will force Brady, known for his agreeable and friendly disposition, to play bad cop with some colleagues seeking to protect plush tax loopholes — but also win over critics to ensure passage of a sorely needed legislative achievement.
“Kevin’s about to go from the most popular, well-liked guy, the gentleman with a kind smile from Texas, to the most hated guy in Washington, D.C., by some group or another,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who had nothing but praise for Brady but said he did not envy his job. “We’ve got to find a way to make the difficult decisions; Kevin’s willing to do that.”
Brady was tapped to lead the powerful tax-writing panel last year, when the notion that a conservative overhaul of the tax code could be signed into law seemed absurd. But GOP leaders and the Republican Party are now banking on Brady to get the bill through the House by Thanksgiving.
Brady is already running around trying to smooth potential snags. On Wednesday, after Trump summarily dismissed Brady’s proposal to scale back tax-deferred retirement savings accounts, the tax chief huddled with his fellow Republicans to discuss tweaking the proposal — or risk Trump’s wrath.
House GOP leaders, meanwhile, implored Brady to win over a handful of Republicans from high-tax states who were threatening to vote against the budget because he planned to curb the state and local tax deduction. Brady worked on a potential deal Wednesday while also juggling an hourlong briefing with reporters, a four-hour tax session with Ways and Means Republicans and a negotiating session with the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who came to Capitol Hill with her own demands for the tax bill.
“It’s a very challenging responsibility,” said Ways and Means member Pat Meehan (R-Pa.). “I appreciate the really difficult position Kevin is in — and I think he’s done a fairly admirable job at trying to resolve the tensions that are a natural part of this process.”
Brady projected optimism in a brief interview this week.
“I do feel confident we are moving together as a conference,” Brady said. “Now, will there be support on 100 percent of the provisions? Tax reform just doesn’t work that way. And so we will work through the process, [and I will] do my very best to try to resolve all the members’ concerns.”
A South Dakota native, Brady was one of five kids raised by a single mom after his father, a lawyer, was shot and killed in a courtroom by a client’s deranged spouse. He took an interest in leadership early in life, running for student body president of his high school. Brady paid for college with jobs as a meat packer, construction worker and waiter before taking a job as an executive at the local chamber of commerce, where he stayed for 18 years.
In 1990, almost a decade after moving to Texas, Brady ran for the state House of Representatives and won. Seven years later, he was elected to Congress and quickly joined Ways and Means, one of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill.
Brady long had his eye on the chairmanship. In 2014, he bowed out of the chairmanship race after it became clear a more junior member of the committee, then-House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, would win. When Ryan (R-Wis.) became speaker a year later, it looked as though Brady might once again be leapfrogged by a more junior member, Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio.) But Ryan tipped the scale in Brady’s favor by endorsing him for chairman.
The job is more challenging than Brady probably imagined.
In recent months, he’s had to play mediator between Republicans on his committee and GOP leaders in the House, the Senate and the White House — and they are rarely in sync.
Several Ways and Means Republicans abhorred the so-called border-adjustment proposal championed early on by Ryan as a way to help pay for tax cuts, and they grumbled privately that Brady was doing the speaker’s bidding by pursuing it.
At times, Brady also upset some of his committee members by not briefing them on details being hashed out by the “Big Six” top tax negotiators — and by barring their staff from joining the tax meetings out of fear of leaks.
Still, Ways and Means Republicans have admired Brady’s ability to balance the constant stress and demands of the job. Even Republicans who aren’t on the committee, such as Meadows, praise Brady’s legislative skills.
“Brady is one of the good guys here on the Hill who has the patience and the respect of committee members that will allow him to weather, as the speaker said, these ‘Class V rapids’ that are coming,” said Ways and Means Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.). “We’re going to stand with him and help him get through this.”
Republicans say next week’s tax rollout is Brady’s first big test. A smooth unveiling, they hope, will create momentum and help avoid the fate of Obamacare repeal.
That’s why Brady has had to rejigger his plan. Removing the state and local tax deduction to appease Republicans from New York and New Jersey, for instance, would leave a $1.3 trillion hole in Brady’s bill.
It’s an exercise he’ll have to get used to. Tax reform, Republicans like to say, is an exercise in turning dials to find the right balance. Any tweak Brady makes for one member is bound to affect the prized provision of another lawmaker.
Brady, who is short and stout with a shaved head, might reach for humor to get him though the next few months. He is known by reporters for his fondness for corny humor and his adherence to talking points.
Asked a few weeks ago about his strategy for an upcoming Republican Conference meeting on taxes — particularly given all the diverging interests in the room — Brady joked, “Hugs for everybody!” He told POLITICO recently that the Astros winning the World Series is first in his prayers; tax reform, second.
Navigating the president’s whims will take more than prayers. On Monday, Trump squashed one unpopular House GOP proposal to help pay for tax cuts: limiting tax-preferred retirement accounts.
“There will be NO change to your 401(k),” Trump tweeted.
Brady suggested Tuesday morning that the idea was still on the table. But Trump reiterated his opposition later in the day.
“I didn’t want that [idea] to go too far. That’s why I ended it very quickly,” Trump told reporters. “I think Kevin Brady is fantastic, but he knows how important 401(k)s are.”
At some point, Brady will move from trying to accommodate everyone to having to say “no.” That might be hard for the Texan, who aims to please.
“He is not one of these guys who says, ‘My way or the highway,’” Reed said. “He truly wants to get to a position that he understands where you’re coming from, and if you’re acting in good faith, he’ll work with you.”
Bernie Becker and Aaron Lorenzo contributed to this report.
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