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White House Takes An Aggressive Approach On Tax Overhaul


The White House is turning to a big Republican agenda item. The president is working on a tax reform plan. And he seems to be going after support from both Republicans and Democrats. President Trump will meet with lawmakers on this issue today. Last night, he hosted a bipartisan group of senators for dinner at the White House. The administration is, so far, taking a more aggressive approach to overhauling the tax code than it did on health care. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to talk us through with this. And, Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve - David (laughter).

GREENE: Steve. David.

LIASSON: Let's try again.

GREENE: You're missing Steve, aren't you?

LIASSON: Good morning.

GREENE: We need to get him back from working on a book. So the president had dinner last night with Democrats and Republicans. And I guess I'm wondering, I mean, this bipartisan approach that we heard so much about when Trump struck that deal with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leaders, is this a serious new approach?

LIASSON: The White House says it is. You're right, three Democrats came to dinner last night. But this kind of outreach is a little different than the bipartisan approaches to tax reform in the past, where you'd see Republican and Democratic leaders of the tax-writing committees working together on the bill from the beginning. On this tax overhaul push, Democrats have pretty much been shut out of the process so far.

So it seems that the administration is just trying to pick up a few Democratic votes. They're targeting Democratic senators who are up for re-election next year in states that Trump won. That describes all three of the senators who came to the White House for dinner last night. The president is expected to go to as many as 13 states in the coming weeks. And he will be focusing on states that he won where there's a Democratic senator who is up for re-election.

GREENE: Interesting, but, you know, I feel like I may have asked you these questions out of order. So he's going after Democratic votes, but what exactly are they going to be voting for? Do we know yet?

LIASSON: That's a good question. We only have the broadest outlines of a tax overhaul. We know the White House wants to get corporate and individual rates down. They say they want to get rid of some deductions. But there's still lots of divisions among Republicans and between Republicans and Democrats on how to pay for these cuts, whether to pay for these cuts, who should get the biggest benefits from them, the middle class or wealthy business owners?

And the administration and congressional officials say that details are coming soon, possibly by the end of this week or month. They need the details because a group of conservative Republicans in the House say they won't vote on a budget until they know what's in the tax plan. And they have to pass the budget first in order to unlock a process called reconciliation that would allow the tax bill to be passed with only 51 votes in the Senate instead of 60.

GREENE: OK, 51 votes, that means they could pass this with just Republicans, right?


GREENE: So why go after Democratic support if you're President Trump?

LIASSON: Because they learned a lesson from Obamacare. They do have 52 Republicans in the Senate, but they can't necessarily count on all of them to fall in line. That's why they want some Democrats too.

GREENE: Well, and does that speak to the White House's relationship with Republicans at this point?

LIASSON: Well, Republican - the relationship between Republican leaders in Congress and the White House is a little shaky now. It's not just because Republicans were blindsided by the president's snap decision to make a deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer last week. But also, looking ahead to 2018, the White House is not committing that the president will support all incumbent Republicans. They're not committing that he would stay out of the primary process. In other words, he could support some Republican challengers to sitting Republican members, which is very unusual.

GREENE: Which he sort of did. It looked like he was already doing that when he visited Arizona a few weeks ago.

LIASSON: Yes. He seemed to be praising Kelly Ward, someone who wants to primary Jeff Flake, an antagonist of the president. But this really could raise questions among some Republicans who are thinking about retiring. Republican operatives tell me it could affect recruiting and fundraising.

GREENE: And, Mara, let me just ask you about something last night that happened. Congress passed this resolution condemning the violence in Charlottesville last month and also urging the Trump administration to speak out against hate groups that espouse racism and white supremacy. This now heads to President Trump's desk. What's your sense of where this goes?

LIASSON: Well, it's really breathtaking. Many members of Congress feel the president did not do enough to condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the wake of Charlottesville. In fact, we have Senator Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican senator, he'll be meeting with the president today on race. And he said the president had to speak out more forcefully and that the president's equivocating comments on Charlottesville had diminished his moral authority.

So this is just another example of Congress pushing back, trying to rein in the president on issues like race. Also, you remember, that Russia sanctions bill which the president didn't want passed by almost unanimous vote.

GREENE: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.