The White House is kicking off its push for tax reform with the intent of winning vulnerable moderate Democrats to the cause — by threatening punishment at the ballot box if they don’t ultimately sign on.
President Donald Trump targeted Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a top GOP target in 2018, during his first major speech on the tax plan Wednesday in McCaskill’s home state of Missouri.
“She must do this for you, and if she doesn’t do it for you, you have to vote her out of office,” Trump declared to uproarious applause. “We just can’t do this anymore with the obstruction and the obstructionists.”
McCaskill has voiced a willingness to be involved with tax reform. Her office declined to respond to Trump’s comments on Wednesday.
Vice President Mike Pence is heading later Wednesday to West Virginia, where he’ll appear alongside Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) at a Chamber of Commerce event. Manchin, too, is up for reelection in 2018, in a state Trump carried by more than 40 points.
“It’s about trying to win their votes,” a senior administration official told POLITICO of the Wednesday visits.
The senators’ vulnerable status in 2018 is also a factor, the official added: “If they don’t help us, it could end up hurting them in the 2018 midterms.”
The White House sees both senators as gettable votes on its tax plan. Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) also are top targets for the White House, which wants to avoid the dismal fate of its effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act — an initiative that never attracted Democratic support, robbing the White House of bipartisan cover and an extra cushion against Republicans who refused to support it.
But Trump’s riff on McCaskill could indicate a more hard-edged approach, focusing on 2018 threats rather than finding bipartisan common ground.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said after the speech that Trump’s comments about McCaskill weren’t meant as intimidation. “It’s not a political threat when you ask a member of Congress to do their job,” she told reporters traveling on Air Force One.
Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp were the only three Democratic senators who didn’t sign a letter circulated by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) this month, outlining principles for Democrats on tax reform.
The White House is especially focused on Manchin, who is the only statewide elected Democrat remaining in West Virginia after Gov. Jim Justice switched parties at a rally with Trump earlier this month.
“Sen. Manchin was open to and helped lead tax reform in West Virginia,” said Steven Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which is hosting the Wednesday event. “I would think if you’re looking at this from a White House point of view, having the vice president come to West Virginia would make good sense. Manchin may be gettable on tax reform.”
Pence is focusing on the tax reform carrot — rather than the 2018 stick — in his sales pitch to Manchin. “We want tax reform, and we want you to work with us,” is how a senior Pence aide described the message. “The people of West Virginia want tax reform.”
“Sen. Manchin has been discussing tax reform with the administration and will continue to work with them on any proposal that can make the current tax system better,” said Manchin spokesman Jonathan Kott. “Sen. Manchin hopes to have the chance to discuss tax reform and other issues important to West Virginia with the vice president today, and he is happy that he’s in the state.”
A Pence trip to Indiana to up the pressure on Donnelly is also under consideration, the Pence aide said.
Outside groups are also getting into the mix. The Koch-backed group Freedom Partners has spent recent days highlighting Manchin’s past support for a comprehensive tax overhaul, as well as similar remarks by McCaskill, Donnelly and other Senate Democrats facing difficult reelection races.
McCaskill raised some GOP hopes for a bipartisan tax package in a Saturday statement that touted “my support for simplifying the tax code by cleaning out loopholes and goodies for special interests, and lowering the corporate tax rate.”
But McCaskill also joined the Democratic letter declaring opposition to any bill that cuts taxes on the top 1 percent as well as any measure that adds to the deficit — a vow that could put her under serious pressure from the left and right as tax legislation takes shape.
McCaskill also said during her latest round of town halls that she would not lower taxes for those making more than $1 million.
The White House hasn’t limited its tax-reform entreaties to Trump-state Democratic senators. Aides to the president have reached out to a small group of moderate House Democrats, including members of the Blue Dog Coalition and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
Democratic leaders and liberal groups are ramping up their campaign to keep the party’s vulnerable lawmakers in the fold on any tax bill that emerges ahead of the 2018 elections.
The Not One Penny campaign, an alliance of progressive activists that has vowed to take on Democrats who back any new tax cuts for the super-rich, is joining with Schumer and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) on Tuesday to publicly slam the GOP tax plan as a gift to the super rich.
Schumer told reporters Tuesday that taxes would be “one of the biggest fights of the next three to four months, and Democrats will be ready.” He advised Republicans to “learn from” the collapse of their one-party attempt to repeal Obamacare “and not repeat the same mistake with tax reform.”
Manchin, however, seems to be shrugging off the pressure he’s facing.
“I just don’t give a shit,” he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail earlier this month. “Don’t care if I get elected, don’t care if I get defeated, how about that. If they think because I’m up for election, that I can be wrangled into voting for shit that I don’t like and can’t explain, they’re all crazy.”
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