(Bloomberg) The White House is reaching back to the Bush administration for a strategy to get a tax code overhaul passed, as President Donald Trump’s advisers try to avoid the missteps that doomed the effort to repeal Obamacare.
To take on a task that hasn’t been accomplished in Washington in three decades, senior aides are adopting a tightly orchestrated process and walking away from the improvisational approach that’s been the Trump administration’s hallmark.
The centerpiece is a weekly, all-hands-on-deck meeting to coordinate the campaign by the president and his allies to win passage of sweeping changes to individual and corporate tax laws, according to four White House officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal plans.
The regular Wednesday meetings, usually held around a long wooden table in the Roosevelt Room steps away from the Oval Office, include representatives of major power centers within the administration: the Office of American Innovation, led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, the Treasury Department, headed by Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Mike Pence’s staff and Gary Cohn’s National Economic Council.
Inside the White House, the assemblage is known as “The Red Team,” a term used in former President George W. Bush’s administration for similar groups organized for major fights. It’s taken from military and corporate parlance for a team that explicitly tests strategy from an opponent’s perspective. But the Trump team is using the label more broadly to convey a sense of urgency and close coordination, the administration officials said.
White House officials acknowledge a major failure in the health care fight was getting outflanked by Democrats in organizing the public and activists.
Marc Short, the head of White House legislative affairs, leads the sessions. Senior staff are expected to arrive ready to report on their progress advancing the legislation and leave with fresh work assignments, according to the officials. The meetings on tax overhaul strategy started in late June, as Senate support for the Trump health plan was unraveling.
As the strategy group works on the political fight, White House officials and congressional Republican leaders are working on the details of the legislation. They are discussing mixing permanent changes in tax law with temporary rate cuts for individuals and businesses, according to people familiar with those discussions. Doing so might help produce legislation that can be passed through a budgetary process known as reconciliation to prevent Senate Democrats from blocking it.
The White House meetings are mirrored in weekly conference calls with about 20 outside allies, according to one administration official. Participants include the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth, the official said.
“They in the White House have done a much more focused job of messaging this issue than earlier issues,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, one of the organizations that participate in the weekly White House call. “It’s not just learning curve stuff—there is a concentration of the mind.”
The White House is also recruiting corporate chief executives and leaders of conservative groups and trade associations to do coordinated town halls and media appearances to support the legislation, one of the administration officials said.
Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary when Bush won a package of tax cuts in his first term, said creating that kind of “echo chamber” was effective in making the push for the last Republican president’s legislative agenda.
“If you consult as the programs are being developed and you bring supporters in they’ll be much more likely to step forward and bring publicity for it,” Fleischer said. Bringing in allies after decisions or announcements were made usually meant they were “less willing to go out on limbs.”
The weekly meetings were proposed by former press secretary Sean Spicer, a veteran of one Bush administration red team. He modeled his plan on a strategic process Bush used for legislative and military campaigns, according to the officials.
Part of the work includes figuring out how different administration officials can be most effective in selling the tax cut. Among the ideas the team has considered is asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to pitch how a tax cut would help with back-to-school shopping and having Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke highlight how more money in consumers’ pockets could aid in paying for a trip to a national park, the officials said.
The group is also gaming out how to navigate the tricky political path to the tax code change. That includes appeasing business interests that will strongly oppose any changes that would eliminate or curtail carve-outs benefiting their industries.
They’re also devising strategies to influence swing-district Republicans, particularly those from large, Democratic-leaning states where elimination of the federal deduction for state and local taxes could translate into tax increases for constituents.
The politics are tough. Voters aren’t demanding major tax legislation. A Bloomberg National Poll in July found that taxes rank no higher than 7th as the top issue on Americans’ minds—just 4 percent cited it as their main concern, compared to double-digit scores for health care, jobs, terrorism, immigration and climate change.
Trump’s plan, even though it exists only as a bare outline released in April, polls particularly poorly. A Quinnipiac University poll in May found that 52 percent of Americans disapprove of it, while 30 percent approve. Sixty-three percent said the wealthy will benefit most from the plan, a view backed by a nonpartisan study by the Tax Policy Center.
Democrats intend to exploit that disconnect to undermine the Republican effort. Party leaders have made clear they won’t support a plan that gives a net tax cut to the top 1 percent of earners.
“Now is not the time to shower millionaires and billionaires with another tax break while working Americans continue to struggle to make ends meet,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said last week in a floor speech.
Trump plans to lead the charge for the tax code rewrite, according to another White House aide. He’s plotting a series of rallies, concentrating on Midwestern swing states, where he wants to tap into his political base as a motivator for key lawmakers. That effort is currently being organized by Rick Dearborn, a deputy chief of staff whose portfolio includes legislative affairs.
Trump plans to meet with members of his Cabinet and senior staff on the tax strategy during his two-week long vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said.
Administration officials said they expect their efforts to be amplified by both Republican congressional leadership and outside conservative political groups. House Speaker Paul Ryan is making an aggressive sales pitch for a tax overhaul in recent interviews, statements and social media postings, casting it as essential for boosting economic growth. Last Friday, he visited a Wisconsin manufacturer, LDV Inc. to make the case for lower business tax rates.
The Ryan-aligned group American Action Network plans to spend more than $20 million promoting changing the tax code, including $5 million in August to build momentum over the congressional recess, said Corry Bliss, the executive director of the group.
—With assistance from Steven T. Dennis