Politics

A Tax Conference Committee Meeting Mostly For Show

Parameters are clear for final Republican push on tax bill

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady makes his way to a meeting in the speaker’s office in the Capitol on Dec. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Nothing against the members of the House and Senate attending Wednesday’s inaugural meeting of the conference committee finalizing the tax code overhaul, but it’s mostly for show and unlikely to be must-see television.

That’s because, with the arguable exception of the farm bill, open meetings of conference committees are not where the deals get done, despite the talking points from top negotiators.

“Our open meeting will be an opportunity for the conferees to discuss our best, most pro-growth tax reform ideas that will help improve the lives of all Americans,” House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas said last week in a statement announcing the conference would sit down Wednesday at 2 p.m. to consider options for a final unified measure.

Some Republican senators on the conference committee could be seen coming and going from a meeting room in the corner of the Capitol on Tuesday, likely trying to finalize the Senate’s views on as many details as possible before the open meeting.

“We’re trying to get our response to the House and get it back to them so we can close it out,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said Tuesday. “It’s a very sensitive negotiation.”

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Some of the details of an emerging proposal began circulating Tuesday afternoon, a full day before the conference committee was set to kick off its formal proceedings in the bowels of the Capitol. 

The prospect of Republicans announcing an agreement in principle on the tax bill even before the first formal meeting of conferees underscores some of the absurdity of the formal conference process in the modern Congress.

Much of the work before Republicans push the conference report to the Senate and House floors will be about ensuring technical compliance with the Senate’s procedures.

Cornyn, a conferee, noted that a remaining procedural hiccup is making sure the final bill passes muster with the Senate’s Byrd rule. The rule stipulates no extraneous material can be included in budget reconciliation bills that do not impact government spending or tax revenue, or add to the long-term deficit outside the 10-year budget window, among other restrictions.

“We’ve got work to do here to work with the parliamentarian to do the Byrd bath and make sure we’re in good shape ... my hope would be that we’re prepared to go to the floor next week,” he added.

So what will happen Wednesday? Brady is expected to wield the gavel for the open session, where senators and House members will gather to offer opening statements, which could be brief. Staff could face questions about what is emerging.

If there is a deal, that could yield a catch-all substitute amendment that the majority Republicans would likely approve, given their 17-12 advantage on the conference committee. Democrats will likely offer their own proposals, which will just as likely be voted down by the GOP in short order. 

The conference kickoff comes the same day President Donald Trump is scheduled to deliver one final sales pitch for the tax measure, which he has been eager to sign before Christmas.

“As we work with Congress to achieve historic tax cuts, the president plans to speak Wednesday to the American people on how tax reform will lead to a brighter future for them and their families,” Lindsay Walters, deputy White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday.

Trump will also meet Wednesday with GOP House and Senate tax conferees at the White House for a working lunch meeting, according to Walters. 

 

When the report is finished, the House-Senate panel could meet again to vote to adopt the conference product. Or staff could simply seek the signatures of supporting members. This possibility has brought up possibly apocryphal stories of staffers seeking out conferees at night for their signatures. 

Once a majority of conferees in each chamber has signed the report, regardless of where the signatures are secured, it would be ready for floor action.

Because it was the House that made the initial request for the tax conference and the Senate agreed to that request, it would be customary for the Senate to move the conference report across the floor first.

In this case, House Republicans would know exactly what sort of margin they are working with if the Senate does pass the conference report first with its narrow majority. 

Republicans seem to be starting to count their victory in hand. 

“Hopefully we have a signing ceremony with the president on Tuesday of next week,” Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, said.

Asked if he’s optimistic that will occur, he said, “I see nothing that would stop it from happening right now.”

Kellie Mejdrich, Ryan McCrimmon, Ed Pesce, Lindsey McPherson and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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