Senate Republicans think President Trump is playing a constructive role in the tax debate and are optimistic about their chances of winning a big legislative victory.
Trump flexed his muscle as an advocate on Capitol Hill Tuesday when he took on Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) during a private meeting after Johnson threatened the day before to vote against the tax bill.
“He told him to stop blocking it and to work out his concerns with the rest of the conference. He told him he would have a chance to offer amendments and he should stop being an impediment,” said a Senate GOP source familiar with the meeting.
“He went at him twice by name,” the source added.
Trump also addressed deficit concerns raised by Sens. Bob Corker(R-Tenn.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), warning them that lawmakers needed to be careful not to hurt future growth by setting up a backstop measure that would raise taxes in case the bill’s growth projections fell short.
The message got through to Johnson and Corker, who were threatening to vote against the tax bill in the Senate Budget Committee.
Both senators voted “yes,” allowing it to pass the panel by a single vote and giving it crucial momentum.
“Obviously he wants me, he encourages me to get to yes. That’s certainly what I want to do,” Johnson said as he walked to the Budget Committee vote, where he voted to advance the legislation, recounting his conversation with Trump.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said Trump gave the tax bill a shot of adrenaline.
“I thought the president did a good job of inspiring us all to get the work done,” he said. “This is a political imperative for Republicans.”
“He brought that message home and I thought it resonated,” he said. “I’m proud of the members of the Budget Committee who allowed this process to continue, including a couple who had some reservations.”
The vote in the Budget Committee was in doubt before the meeting with Trump.
“I think we’ve come to a pretty good place,” said Corker after lunch, describing his talks with administration officials over the weekend.
Trump has yet to endorse the idea backed by Lankford and Corker of setting a trigger in the bill that would undo some tax relief in case the pending reform bill adds more to the deficit than anticipated.
He warned that lawmakers need to be careful not to dampen future economic growth by fueling fears in the private sector that tax relief may be pulled back.
“His response was ‘Whatever we do, we can’t hurt the growth of the economy,’ ” Lankford said.
Trump’s arguments have had more sway with senators in the tax debate than they did during the health-care debate earlier this year, which ended in an embarrassing failure for the White House and GOP leaders.
The senators say Trump, who during a debate last year said he used a $916 million loss reported in his 1995 tax return to avoid paying federal income taxes for years afterward, is seen as more knowledgeable on tax issues.
“Tax policy is obviously something he’s worked on a lot for a long time. Just his own personal business dealings and his own taxes so he’s very knowledgeable of this issue,” Lankford said.
He acknowledged that Trump made a good point about the potential of a backstop measure to cause uncertainty in the business sector.
“If you put together a backstop that business is scared about, they’ve got to plan for that,” he added. “They slow down their investment because they’re afraid that might kick in at some point. That’s a reasonable statement.”
The GOP’s experience with Trump on health care was often unhappy.
Trump at times did not appear to fully grasp the policy debate and sometimes made contradictory statements on ObamaCare.
For example, he hailed passage of the House health-care reform bill with a Rose Garden ceremony but later criticized that legislation as “mean” and urged senators to come up with a plan that was more “generous” and “kind.”
Trump undercut Senate GOP leaders when he floated the idea of passing a bill that repealed ObamaCare without setting up a replacement.
GOP leaders were furious because it gave conservative members of their conference an excuse to vote against their repeal-and-replace plan.
Republican senators at the time of the health-care debate also said that Trump didn’t travel around the country enough to sell his vision for reform.
He has been more active on that front during the tax debate.
The president will travel to Missouri on Wednesday to pressure Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), who faces a tough reelection in 2018, to vote for the bill.
Trump flew to Indiana, the home state of another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly, in September to promise “revolutionary change” to the tax code and pledge the economy would take off “like a rocket ship.”
He’s also taken a hands-on approach to lobbying lawmakers in the tax debate, meeting with the entire Senate Republican conference on Capitol Hill just over a month ago to unify it behind his tax plan.