WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials are reaching out to Senate Democrats for help in crafting a tax overhaul package, a departure from the go-it-alone strategy Republicans have been taking on health care.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials met with Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday. Afterward, several Democrats described the meeting as a broad discussion short on specifics.
“It’s just an opener, just an opening conversation,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Previously, Senate Republicans said they were prepared to pass a tax overhaul using special Senate rules that would allow them to bypass Senate Democrats altogether.
Just last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: “Regretfully we don’t expect to have any Democratic involvement in” a tax overhaul.
But with only 52 Republicans in the Senate, the strategy would leave little room for error.
On Wednesday, McConnell softened his tone.
“Rather than engage in blind opposition for its own sake on yet another issue, I hope Democrats will instead take the kind of constructive approach we saw the last time our country enacted comprehensive tax reform,” McConnell said in a floor speech.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she would welcome the opportunity to work on a bipartisan tax plan. But other than an occasional meeting with Republicans, she has seen little progress.
“For two years, we had a thoughtful process with bipartisan working groups,” Stabenow said. “But all of that has stopped.”
“I don’t know what their process is going to be,” Stabenow added.
It has been 31 years since Congress overhauled the tax code. In 1986, Republican President Ronald Reagan worked with Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.
“It was a big win for both parties,” McConnell said. “Now, it’s once again time that we do something about the issue, and I hope that our Democratic colleagues will once again work on a bipartisan basis toward that end.”
There is widespread agreement that the current tax system is too complicated and picks too many winners and losers, compelling companies to make business decisions based on tax implications instead of sound business reasons.
There is also a broad consensus that lawmakers want to lower overall tax rates and recover the lost revenue by reducing the number of exemptions, deductions and tax credits.
However, there is little consensus on which tax breaks to eliminate, given that many of them are popular and affect millions of families and businesses.
Many Democrats and Republicans also fundamentally disagree over how much revenue the federal government should generate from taxes. They would have to overcome these differences to reach a bipartisan deal.
“The question I said to them is, ‘You went down the path of trying to just do Republican votes on health care and so far that hasn’t been very productive. Why don’t we start with some bipartisan work?'” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “I think they heard me. It’s not going to happen if you don’t have bipartisan and moderate Democrats as part of the equation.”
Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/stephenatap