President Trump Draws Closer To His First Legislative Victory

Dec 14, 2017
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump, nearing the end of his first year in office, appears close to a big win in Congress. He is urging lawmakers to move quickly now that House and Senate Republicans say they have agreed on a tax plan.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are so close right now, so close - in fact, almost - I don't want to talk about it. Maybe we shouldn't talk about it.

GREENE: Close, but there's also a bit of a rush here. Republicans' narrow Senate majority is about to get more narrow after a big election loss in Alabama on Tuesday. Despite Democratic demands to slow this process down, a tax vote is being planned for next week. And NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is in our studio in Washington to talk us through it. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: So easy question, I'm sure - what exactly is in this compromise bill?

SNELL: Well, we haven't seen the bill just yet. So what we have right now is what they're calling an agreement. And the senior congressional aides have confirmed the biggest details, and we'll start with individuals. So they are going to keep the plan to keep the double standard deduction. That's that deduction that most people take - $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples.

GREENE: Those deductions are going to go up now under this plan.

SNELL: Right. So it's a near doubling for what you write off right off the top of your tax bill. Big change, though, is the individual top rate for the people who earned the very most will drop from 39.6 to 37 percent.

GREENE: And this is where Democrats have said that this bill mostly benefits the wealthy. I mean, that's been a point of real contention through this whole process.

SNELL: Yeah, absolutely. Democrats say that dropping the top rate and some other changes that they have in here would really do much more for the wealthy than they would for the middle class. Among those is a plan to - I mean, Democrats, to be fair, support this idea, but that the cap on the mortgage interest deduction would go to $750,000. That's another thing where, you know, mostly wealthy people would be able to take advantage.

GREENE: Can I ask you - let's just remember how we have arrived here. There was a whole lot of wrangling, some with Republicans and fellow Republicans talking about whether to eliminate certain deductions to try and pay for these tax cuts. But where have things landed with this compromise on some of those things?

SNELL: Sure. This bill looks like it's going to be a lot more generous for individuals than we were originally expecting. One of the things that they are adding back is a $10,000 deduction for state and local taxes. There is some wrangling about the details about how that would work, but it would - appeals really to high-cost areas, big blue states where Republicans are fighting to keep their majority - and in the suburbs. So that's the idea that they would be able to deduct property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes paid to states.

GREENE: So politically, that might help the party keep these votes on board and also help them in some of those states. But isn't that going to bring back some of the real concerns about what this plan does to the deficit if you start restoring those deductions?

SNELL: Yeah, and that's got to be something we're going to be looking for when we see a final bill and when those congressional scorekeepers, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, actually give us a score of how much this bill will cost. One way they're going to try to curb the growth of deficit would be by, A, letting the individual tax rates expire after eight years. That would mean that the deficit impact is lower. And the other thing that they're doing is they're getting rid of their plan to set the corporate rate at 20 percent, and they're going to, you know, moderate that a little bit to 21 percent. They hope that'll make up a big part of the difference.

GREENE: So do they have the votes to pass this by Christmas as President Trump is very strongly urging them to do here?

SNELL: Yeah, I was speaking with Republicans in the halls of Congress all day yesterday, and they seemed very confident. But I think it's important to remember that in the Senate there's such a narrow majority of Republicans. We've talked about that a lot already, but that majority has gotten a little bit narrower. There are some concerns that Senator John McCain has been hospitalized. He's in Walter Reed Hospital undergoing some treatments for brain cancer, and there are concerns that he may not make it back in time to vote for this bill. There are other senators who may not be here as well, so there is a question about how many votes they have.

GREENE: OK. So getting close to a legislative victory for the Republican Party but certainly not quite done yet. We'll have to see where this goes. NPR's congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thanks.

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