How Steve Scalise plans to make tax reform and a balanced budget happen

In Nation
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Inside the House Republican conference, Speaker Paul Ryan calls the shots, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tells the jokes and Steve Scalise cracks the whip.

No one knows more about what it takes to move legislation during the Trump era than Scalise. And if the Republican legislative agenda doesn’t crash and burn, Scalise will deserve a lion’s share of the credit.

By sweet talking and arm twisting, Scalise alternately coaxes and cajoles House Republicans before each vote. Scalise sat down with Washington Examiner reporters and editors to explain how whipping Congress is like herding cats.

As the muscle of leadership, Scalise recently helped talk 217 timid Republicans into fulfilling an 8-year-old promise of repealing and replacing Obamacare. He explained that second healthcare effort, detailing how he recruited Trump to help thrash conservative and centrist factions into line and what the Senate needs to do to finish the job.

Looking forward, Scalise forecast what tax reform should look like and how Republicans can finally balance the budget. The most important insights are excerpted below:

On how Trump worked with House leaders during the healthcare debate:

Trump was incredibly helpful. Everything that I asked him to do — everything our leadership asked him to do — he did. He would ask me for names sometimes. Mike Pence – Mike and I served together for five years. We had worked on stuff before. Mike would call me on a regular basis, what can I do, what can the president do? And everything I asked them to do, they did, which was really refreshing.

On why it took longer than expected for the House to pass the American Health Care Act:

The calendar cannot drive a big issue like this. It’s got to be based on the policy. And even though some people wanted the calendar to move quicker, the policy wasn’t ready. My thing all along the way is “Failure is not an option,” and if we have a chance to pass this bill, it would be irresponsible to bring it up for a vote just to fail.

At some point I always felt everybody had the vote. If the votes were never going to be there, we should have just brought it up and make everybody go on record. But as long as there’s a chance to pass the bill, that’s the most important thing. We had to keep working and keep working until we had the votes to pass the bill. Forget about the calendar.

On whether Republicans actually wanted to repeal Obamacare:

No, there were very few true obstructionists in the House. And I think if you look from the beginning, we had a lot of members that came out vocally against the original bill on both sides. When you look at the leader of the Tuesday Group and the leader of the Freedom Caucus, who were criticizing the bill for completely different reasons, as well as Nancy Pelosi on the left, it showed you we had probably struck a decent balance, and then we had to work through some other issues confined by the challenges of reconciliation.

There were so many people that were focused on what the bill didn’t do that they knew couldn’t be done through reconciliation. And so there does have to be an honesty with people that you cannot do all the things that I would want to do or you would want to do in reconciliation, but it’s the only thing that actually gives you the ability to put a bill on Donald Trump’s desk so that he can sign it.

On how Rep. Tom MacArthur helped broker a compromise between centrists and conservatives:

I know that within the Tuesday Group there were a lot of conversations that I wasn’t privy to, but I heard about a lot of it. They didn’t want him talking to the Freedom Caucus. He wasn’t doing it on behalf of the Tuesday Group, and I think that was pretty clear on the inside. How it was portrayed on the outside might have been different.

But I do think the fact that he took it upon himself to sit down and start having detailed conversations with [Rep.] Mark Meadows and others to help the Freedom Caucus get a better understanding of the world that they live in, the shoes they walk in in their districts and why this couldn’t happen, but it could happen this way.

On whether the Senate will repeal Obamacare:

I wish my Senate colleagues well when they say that they’re going to start over. What I would predict is that they’re going to grapple with the same issues we did and probably end up in a very similar place. Because the main objectives we had, again it’s not about, “I want a bill that’s going to create a $3,200 tax credit for a 41-year-old male.”

It was about lowering premiums for people, putting them back in charge of their healthcare decisions, and protecting people with pre-existing conditions. We had some very basic objectives in repeal-and-replace Obamacare within the limits of budget reconciliation. Obviously, you cannot do full repeal of Obamacare without a 60-vote bill in the Senate, but you can surely gut the law and give people true healthcare freedom with 51 votes in the Senate.

On the most important parts of healthcare reform, including preserving protections for pre-existing conditions:

Interestingly, the Senate is realizing a lot of the same challenges we did. But as long as they focus on lower premiums, putting patients back in charge of their healthcare decisions and protecting people with pre-existing conditions, they need to pass a bill … and hopefully before the August recess. But the most important thing is to get the policy right and to pass the bill that achieves those goals.

On tax reform:

Our argument is everybody ought to be paying lower rates, and we ought to be focused on growing the economy and rebuilding the middle class. Barack Obama destroyed the middle class. Whatever you want to say about his rhetoric, the rich got richer, but the poor got poorer and the middle class got wiped out. That’s really what Trump appealed to and inspired in the forgotten man. There are a lot of people in the Rust Belt who felt like “nobody’s concerned about me, and my shot at the American dream is going away.” We need to restore that. And that’s what our policy is going to be focused on, is making the code simpler, lowering rates for everybody, and oh by the way, it’s going to be so simple that over 90 percent of Americans can actually do their tax returns on a postcard.

On what Trump wants from tax reform:

He really wants to lower rates. He wants the repatriation. He wants to bring as much of that money [home from] overseas as corporations have that are sitting overseas that tell us they want to bring the money back, but they’re not going to bring it back at the current rates. So if you do something that makes sense, the trillion dollars that are growing other countries’ economies can be growing America’s economy. He wants to help bring that back. He understands that tax reform is really critical to getting the economy moving again and doing it this year is important.

On how that tax reform would affect the little guy:

For the guy on the street that doesn’t have a team of CPAs, all he cares about is “I can’t fill out my own tax return, and if I call this 1-800 number five different times, I literally get five different answers from the IRS because they don’t even know what this tax code means. So how can I do my own taxes? I can’t afford to pay a CPA.” For over 90 percent of Americans, they literally will fill out their tax return on a postcard. That gets people excited about the reform.

On how that tax reform could bring business back to America:

Obama would just demonize them. You’re unpatriotic or whatever; kick them on the way out instead of saying “Why are you leaving?” And most of them will tell you I don’t want to leave. I will bring those jobs back quickly if we actually have a tax code where I can be competitive, and I don’t have to give up 20 basis points to my competitor, who is headquartered in Ireland. So give me the ability to bring the jobs back to America.

We’re talking like $80,000- and $120,000-a-year jobs, tens of thousands of those jobs that we can bring back to our country. You’ll get a lot of people off the sidelines who literally gave up on trying to find work under Obama, who will then be able to get back into the marketplace and be taxpayers.

On the significance of Trump proposing a balanced budget:

The fact that this president proposed a budget that gets to balance is a big deal, because for eight years we never had a proposal from the White House that balances. … If you want to criticize a part of President Trump’s proposal, then show me your plan to balance the budget. We’re going to have a bill that comes through the House that balances, just like we always have. So we’ll show how to balance the budget. We don’t need to criticize anybody; we actually show it.

If you have an idea or if you don’t like the president’s idea on this, show me your idea on how to do it, and let’s have an honest discussion. Same thing with border adjustability or any component that’s been discussed before. If somebody’s got an issue with it, as long as you can show how to bring something better, obviously, then that’s where the discussion is.

On disagreements between GOP leadership and Trump on the Border Adjustment Tax:

We want to be on the same page as the president. Where exactly they go or we go, you do have some revenue neutrality issues you’ve got to address if you’re working through budget reconciliation. So just an understanding of how mechanically the process needs to work to get 51 votes in the Senate is important. It’s inside the Beltway kind of mentality. People outside don’t care; they just say lower my rates. Well, how we lower the rates and get some certainty out there is going to be really important. And so if it’s got to be revenue-neutral to get that certainty in border adjustments not in the mix, then what replaces it?

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