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Outside groups prop up White House’s tax reform efforts

Conservative and business-aligned advocacy groups plan to spend millions of dollars boosting tax reform in August, part of a coordinated effort with the White House and lawmakers to avoid the mistakes made during the bruising attempt to repeal Obamacare.

The push by Washington-based interest groups, President Donald Trump’s White House, the Treasury Department and Republicans on the Hill aims to get better results from tax reform by engaging stakeholders from the outset — and by pitching their plans to voters aggressively and early.

The American Action Network announced on Monday that it planned to spend $5 million in August alone — when lawmakers are usually back in their districts — and more than $20 million total on a tax push. The Business Roundtable, a group that represents CEOs of major companies, and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity have also pledged to spend millions on TV and radio ads and social media campaigns and ensuring grass-roots turnout at town halls over the congressional recess. They would not confirm the exact amounts they will spend.

Those ads will focus on how tax reform will hit consumers’ pocketbooks, boost American jobs and help economic growth broadly, not on the benefits for the big businesses helping to fund the campaign. The goal is to convince lawmakers it’s essential to start working on tax reform in September, even though lawmakers first need to pass a budget and raise the debt ceiling.

“We are advocating most importantly for a tax cut for working families,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the American Action Network. “It’s important for families to know that members of Congress have their back. The current system does not work, and the status quo is not acceptable.”

The high level of planned outside spending this August shows that the White House has learned from its health care scars. The administration has engaged these groups with far more frequency and care than it did with health care’s major, powerful players, such as doctors, hospitals and patient groups, all of which opposed the House and Senate bills to repeal Obamacare.

National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have held dozens of listening sessions to hear groups’ various tax concerns, meeting on Monday with real estate professionals.

While it’s not clear yet how much business groups will spend, in total, pushing tax reform, it looks likely to be more than was spent in support of repealing the Affordable Care Act. The ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics said it had seen a total of $10.1 million spent this year in favor of undoing the law, while Obamacare supporters spent $24.9 million opposing repeal.

“In the health care battle, there was not an organized effort to bring on board a lot of the conservative grass-roots organizations and support. But there has been on tax reform,” said Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs at an Americans for Prosperity-sponsored event on Monday, which he attended with Mnuchin. “It’s clearly something that’s being galvanized this time.”

The White House also plans to use Trump — who is far more engaged on taxes than health policy — as an avid salesman. That’s a move that echoes the way President Ronald Reagan helped to sell the country on the 1986 tax reform efforts, the last time Congress successfully changed the code.

“Reagan’s devotion and public campaign for tax reform was essential to its passage,” said Jeffrey Birnbaum, president of BGR Public Relations and author of the seminal book on the 1986 legislation, “Showdown at Gucci Gulch.” “For something like tax reform to pass, there has to be pressure from voters. It is not a natural act for taxpayers to want to have benefits taken away from them.”

Short indicated at Monday’s tax event that the White House will look to build voter support in states where Senate Democrats are up for reelection in 2018, including North Dakota, Montana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

“The plan is for the president to deliver that message straight to the communities that stand to benefit the most from his ambitious agenda, so they can tell their representatives why it’s so important to them that Congress advance tax reform swiftly and decisively,” said Natalie Strom, a White House spokesperson.

The White House did interact with conservative groups during the health care push, but it left most of the process of crafting legislation to Republican leaders on the Hill. Administration officials also periodically floated sending Trump to health care rallies around the country, but he never seemed engaged with the details of Obamacare repeal and rarely spent much time on the topic in public appearances.

This time around, the administration has been working to quietly build support among outside groups and make them feel included in any tax push.

Paul Teller, a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs who previously served as chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz and executive director of the Republican Study Committee, has met with conservative groups regularly in recent weeks to keep them abreast of the White House’s and Congress’ joint negotiations on the direction of a tax overhaul. To conservatives, Teller is considered a “true believer” who “will hold the line for the most conservative principles possible,” said one conservative who attended Teller’s recent meetings.

One goal has been to game out the best way to sell tax reform to the public, even if key policy details remain fuzzy.

“The general consensus is that we need to personalize this. Why does the disinterested person in some random town care about this?” said one conservative tax expert involved in the discussions. “The answer is the individual tax cuts and the economic and wage growth.”

Absent from the ads that the Business Roundtable and American Action Network plan to run is any mention of how businesses’ bottom lines would benefit from tax reform, especially if the president and Congress can bring the corporate rate as low as 15 percent, as Trump prefers.

Before the White House and congressional tax leaders released a joint statement on their reform goals last week, administration and Hill staffers also met with several outside groups to preview the statement, which ran at just five paragraphs.

Among the attendees at the preview meeting: Teller; Treasury’s Justin Muzinich; George Callas, senior tax counsel to House Speaker Paul Ryan; and the Senate Finance Committee’s Jay Khosola.

One of the messages they delivered, according to attendees: Anything groups can do to help to push tax reform in August would be much appreciated.

“We like to think that we have gone through the regular order on this, from getting buy-in from the principals on the Big Six to getting traditional coalitions together in D.C. to having the White House promise to spend August pushing this,” said one Republican congressional aide. “The White House has already done more than they did for health care, and that is a positive sign.”

Aaron Lorenzo contributed to this report.

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