President Donald Trump got a boost Thursday with passage of the House tax bill, but the biggest winner may be Speaker Paul Ryan.
Loathed by the Breitbart wing of the Republican Party — which sees Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as Trump’s biggest obstacle to making America great again — the Wisconsin Republican scored a major victory in Thursday’s 227-205 vote to pass a massive tax-cut package that dramatically alters the U.S. tax code.
While the Senate still has to pass its own version of the bill, and the two chambers then have to cut a deal to resolve key differences, it’s a win for Ryan. Like repealing and replacing Obamacare, Ryan can claim the House has done its job, and it’s over to you, Mitch McConnell.
And it’s worth pointing out that even in the Trump era, the biggest legislative win so far for Trump is an issue that Ryan has been working on for virtually his entire career.
“The speaker has been plowing the field for years for this moment. Decades, perhaps, for this moment,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas). “He’s made the case to lawmakers, thought leaders, the country, forever. It’s because of his hard work and leadership we’re here at this moment.”
“This is his bill. This is Ryan’s bill. … This is what he came for,” Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) added. “What cements things is winning. You don’t win, you’re not invited back.”
Yet there are vocal opponents to the tax bill, both inside the House GOP conference and out.
A bloc of House Republicans from blue states like New York and New Jersey voted against the bill over a proposal to limit the deduction for state and local taxes, a major issue for their constituents. Democrats unanimously voted against the package, saying that Republicans are hurting the middle class to give rich people and corporate America a huge gift.
And Ryan himself had to make the final step from deficit hawk to full-fledged supply-sider, as the bill will add nearly $1.5 trillion to the deficit over a decade. During the Obama era, Ryan voiced strong opposition to boosting budgets deficits; now under Trump, those concerns apparently have disappeared. National polls also show the American public is not in favor of the legislation.
“This is a shell game, a Ponzi scheme that corporate America will perpetrate on the American people,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared of the GOP tax plan. “But if you’re the wealthiest 1 percent, Republicans will give you the sun, the moon and the stars, all of that at the expense of the great middle class.”
Ryan — a former chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means panels — has essentially staked his job on this bill.
Ryan has been under tremendous pressure from Trump and party donors to pass a tax cut, a feeling made only more urgent by the summer’s Obamacare debacle. The Republican trouncing in the recent Virginia elections also have spooked the entire GOP as their favorability ratings have cratered. If House Republicans can’t pass a tax cut, many GOP lawmakers admitted in private, there really isn’t any reason for them to be in the majority anymore.
“This is one of the most historic and the biggest things that we will ever do,” Ryan said on the floor before the vote. “And the reason is because this is one of the biggest things we can do to improve people’s lives, to revitalize that beautiful, American idea, to spread liberty and freedom.”
For Ryan, the past two weeks leading into Thursday’s vote have actually been fairly calm. As he has all year, Ryan did a barrage of TV interviews pushing the GOP plan, including another televised “townhall” to discuss it. He’s focused on it at every news conference, swatting away questions about Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to focus on this measure. In the end, there was little drama as House GOP leaders had the votes locked up for days.
Ryan’s role in much of the tax debate was as a “facilitator,” according to GOP sources, helping to keep everyone focused on the end goal rather than getting too bogged down in contentious policy fights. He also helped smooth the rough spots between the White House and tax-writing committees that drafted the legislation.
This was the case in the “Big Six” talks over taxes throughout July, August and September, as its members crafted the framework for what eventually became the House and Senate bills. That high-powered group — which included Ryan, Brady, McConnell, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn — wrestled with thorny issues, including how much to cut taxes for the wealthy; whether to make any such cuts permanent or phase them out; what to do with Obamacare taxes; and how much they can slash the corporate rate, a big priority for Trump.
Another important moment occurred last month, when the House agreed to take up the Senate budget resolution that outlined the parameters of the package. Passage of the budget resolution was critical since it allows Senate Republicans to evade Democratic filibusters and consider the tax bill under a 51-vote threshold, rather than 60.
Taking up the Senate resolution was a major concession by House Budget Committee Chairman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) and many conservatives. The House’s budget plan would require the tax reform bill to be deficit neutral and would force Congress to find more than $200 billion in savings from changes to mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare, provisions not favored by the Senate. Ryan spoke to both Black and Trump over the need to move quickly to get taxes done and they signed off on the move.
One other touchy topic was the Alaska delegation, which wanted to include language allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of the Senate budget resolution. But doing so would have slowed down the process of approving the House package. Ryan spoke to Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as well as Rep. Don Young, and persuaded the GOP trio to wait and include it in the Senate tax cut plan, which is what occurred.
Ryan pressed his own members to back the Senate budget, saying, “It comes down to this: If we want to start 2018 with a new tax code and the wind at our backs, I think we need to be out of the House by Thanksgiving,” Ryan told his members in Oct. 19 conference call. “And to realistically be out of the House by Thanksgiving, we need to pass a final budget next week.”
Ryan and other GOP leaders, cognizant of the criticism they received from the rank-and-file over their handling of the Obamacare repeal proposal, let Brady take the lead inside Ways and Means on drafting a tax bill. While leadership knew what Brady was trying to do, they explicitly did not attempt to dictate the outcome. This helped build broad support for the package, although Brady was forced to make some changes to the legislation during the markup.
“Absolutely it’s a huge success,” said Rep. Tom Reed, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and a New Yorker who voted in favor of the package, adding, Ryan’s ability to “keep people focused and trying to deal with their fears and anxiety has helped us a great deal.”
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