The tax reform debate will kick into high gear Wednesday as Senate and House lawmakers meet publicly in an attempt to hammer out the differences between competing tax overhaul plans.
Three senators from the Philadelphia region have more power in the process than most.
Of the 535 members of Congress, a mere 29 are part of the formal conference committee tasked with figuring out the final version of the GOP’s massive tax code overhaul. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is the only Republican from the region on the panel, and he’s expected to play a key role in the effort.
But he expressed some reservation about whether getting a seat on the most talked-about committee in Washington is a good thing.
“Yes, indeed, that’s congratulations or condolences?” Toomey joked about the massive undertaking.
As debates continue behind the scenes — on matters ranging from how much to cut corporate taxes to whether teachers will be able to deduct school supplies — the mains focus, Toomey said, will be getting a bill to President Donald Trump’s desk.
“My mindset is I want to get an outcome as soon as we reasonably can that can pass both bodies,” he said.
U.S. Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, both Democrats, are also on the conference committee. Because they’re in the minority party, they won’t have as much sway over the discussions as Toomey.
Meanwhile, some of Toomey’s fellow Pennsylvania Republicans aren’t quite clear what to make of his role on the crucial committee.
U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, who represents parts of several counties west of Philadelphia, said Toomey represents the GOP well on tax policy, but he’s not sure that Toomey is pressing for policies tailored to Pennsylvania.
“Just from a policy perspective, he’s well-steeped in these issues. I don’t view that so much as a Northeast issue in as much as I do just like he’s well-versed in these issues,” Costello said.
Because Toomey, the only Republican from the Northeast on the conference committee, is a senator, House lawmakers from the region — including Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent — say they’re talking more to Speaker Paul Ryan and his lieutenants than Toomey.
“Like I said, I’ve talked with Pat, and I’m actually working more with my House leaders right now, or the House conferees, more than Pat,” Dent said. “But I’m sure I’ll be communicating with Pat as well.”
Other House members from the region are taking a similar approach, in part because Toomey has opposed keeping the state and local property tax deduction favored by many Northeast House representatives.
Dent, who’s decided not to seek another term, said he prefers the Senate’s plan to keep the inheritance tax, but double the size of estates it exempts. He said he also likes that the House bill doesn’t end Obamacare’s individual health care mandate.
Dent said that means he will be talking to Toomey about some items, but continue talking with House leaders about others.
“There are some areas where I prefer the Senate position, and there are some where I prefer the House position,” he said. “Where I prefer the Senate position, I’m going to share with both sides. I’ve done that.”
Toomey came under fire for sponsoring an amendment that appeared to shield only the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan from new taxes on university endowments — although several Pennsylvania colleges would be hit with the tax.
Even though that amendment was defeated, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat, said it shows where Toomey’s heart is.
“On something like this, I really wish that he would look out more for what’s in interest of Pennsylvania, and not necessarily one college in Michigan,” Boyle said.
Denying that he offered the amendment to benefit Hillsdale alone, Toomey said it was designed for colleges that don’t accept federal funds and have large enough endowments to be hit with the proposed new tax.
“I believe that Hillsdale College would qualify for this. There are other colleges that chose to forgo the funding, ” Toomey said during debate. “I’m not sure how many of them also have an endowment large enough at the moment that it would have an impact on them, and I have no idea how long it might take them to develop an endowment.”
As for the Democrats …
Delaware Sen. Carper said his goal is to guide the GOP tax proposals toward the middle. That, he said, would mean the legislation would more closely resemble what the president has actually promised.
“One, the final tax bill should not benefit people like the president — people with great wealth.
“Two, it should help middle-class families,” he said. “And, three, it should simplify the tax code. And we want to make sure at the end of the day it looks like what the president said he would sign.”
During the floor debate on the Senate bill, New Jersey Sen. Menendez lambasted Toomey for calling the state and local property tax provision a subsidy for the Garden State … when New Jersey taxpayers already send more to Washington than the state gets back.
“The only people who come out on top in this legislation are those who are already sitting at the very top. So much for draining the swamp,” Menendez said. “This is about as mucky as it gets.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, another Delaware Democrat, said it’s a shame Republicans have locked his party out of talks over the tax code until now. But Menendez and Carper now have a chance to make a difference in negotiations, Coons said, because the GOP can only afford to lose two Republican votes in the Senate.
“My hope is that, in conference, because the margin of passage in the Senate was so close, that there may be yet the opportunity for reconsideration, and having Sen. Carper and Sen. Menendez at the table will certainly help,” Coons said.