GOP tax writers are revving up their work on tax reform, even as Syria and other fiscal quandaries are taking center stage on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers are consumed with a potential military strike in Syria and are already ramping up the debate over keeping the government funded and avoiding a default on the nation’s debt.
But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and other Republicans on the panel insist there’s still plenty of political space for them to push ahead on tax reform and meet Camp’s goal of passing a bill out of committee this year.GOP panel members huddled privately on Tuesday for the first of as many as six meetings over the next two weeks, as Ways and Means Committee members dive into the crevices of the code.
“We’re definitely going to step up the pace this fall, no doubt about it,” Camp told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.
“Tax reform is real. It’s here, and Ways and Means is on a relentless deadline to lay out the first complete rewrite of the tax code since President Reagan,” Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), a senior Republican on the committee, told The Hill.
Still, exactly where tax reform falls on the list of GOP leaders’ priorities is an open question. Camp and committee Republicans have consistently laid out a fall timeline for action, and Republican leadership aides insist a tax revamp is a top objective.
But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made no mention of the effort in the recent memo he sent to members laying out priorities for September and October.
That snub comes months after House GOP leaders reserved H.R. 1, the coveted legislative bill number, for tax reform.
And while GOP rank-and-file still say that tax reform is one of their top goals, they also acknowledge that other issues, such as blocking the implementation of President Obama’s healthcare law, are higher on their list of concerns.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Camp, a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), would only say that he believes he has the go-ahead from leadership.
“I’m going to continue to work with our leadership. I consider that we’re all on the same team,” Camp said, after being asked if he needed leadership’s backing to proceed to a markup. “So I usually think those are kind of mutual decisions. It’s usually not necessarily a green light from them.”
Camp and Brady also conceded that the committee would have to seek traction in the midst of a crowded congressional calendar.
“Syria and the debt ceiling and the [continuing resolution] make it harder to bring this to the forefront. How much of a delay, if any, it’s just hard to know right now,” Brady told The Hill. “Obviously, we have to deal with the critical issues right now.”
Many of Washington’s fiscal observers have long given Camp and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who concluded a joint nationwide barnstorming tour this week, steep odds in their bid to broadly revamp the nation’s tax laws.
Republicans and Democrats, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, have found common ground on how to revamp the country’s corporate tax code.
But the two parties have yet to bridge their gap on whether a reformed code should raise revenue.
A Baucus aide said Tuesday that the chairman was finishing up one-on-one meetings with senators on tax reform and considering his next steps. Baucus has also announced plans to mark up a reform bill this fall.
In the House, Republicans say they still think a timeline or framework for tax reform could be included in a deal to raise the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department says has to happen by mid-October.
But Republicans also aren’t loudly pushing tax reform as a priority in the looming fiscal negotiations, and the top Democratic tax writer in the House, Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), stressed Tuesday that a rewrite of the code should be kept totally separate from the debt limit.
Levin also told reporters he and Camp did not discuss tax reform during the August recess and questioned whether Republicans wanted to craft a bipartisan measure.
“I think in order for it to be meaningful, it has to be bipartisan,” Levin said. “The bipartisanship should be happening now.”
GOP rank-and-file tab tax reform as a crucial plank in their goal to spark economic growth — and to avoid being tarred as interested only in restraining government spending.
Unlike the fiscal battles of the last Congress, tax rates are now permanent, meaning lawmakers don’t have to grapple with a potential top-to-bottom tax increase.
Some Republicans have also expressed concern about moving forward, given the revenue divide and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has, at times, doused cold water on Baucus’s efforts.
“There’s no question it needs to happen. The only problem is there’s no deadline,” Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), a member of GOP leadership, told The Hill. “Until we have the moment that says, ‘This is the moment it has to be done,’ I’m skeptical.”
“Leadership has to be able to make the call and say, ‘Here’s a spot to get on the calendar, and we’re going to push,’” he added, noting that he was surprised that tax reform was omitted from Cantor’s memo.
“When I read through it, I thought, ‘There’s something missing here.’ There’s not everything on the schedule, but that’s a pretty big deal.”
Meanwhile, ObamaCare exchanges open for enrollment in three weeks, and a slew of top provisions go live starting in 2014, leading Republicans to start an all-out assault to delay or defund the president’s signature law.
“I don’t think it’s something that’s been forgotten,” Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said about tax reform. “I think it’s just current events; there are other things that are more immediate.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) added that tax reform can be a less cut-and-dry issue for voters than healthcare or Syria.
“Those become very easy to put our arms around on whether you’re for or against them, where tax reform is much more difficult,” Meadows said.
Camp has long said tax reform is a heavy lift but also said Tuesday he thought the GOP rank-and-file will be on board when the rubber hits the road.
“When we get this concluded, I think it’s going to be something that they’re going to be very excited about,” the Ways and Means Committee chairman said. “But again, it’s hard to predict until they actually see what we come up with.”