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White House Appears To Be One Step Closer To First Legislative Victory


A tweet from President Trump this morning said the Republican tax bill is, in his words, getting better and better. Well, now the Senate appears poised to pass the measure by a narrow margin. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters today he has the votes he needs after some last-minute deal-making - that despite a report from congressional scorekeepers who say the tax bill will not come close to paying for itself. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. Hello, Scott.


SIEGEL: Passage in the Senate would represent a long-sought victory for the president. How did he and Mitch McConnell get this done?

HORSLEY: Well, it wasn't easy. Remember; Mitch McConnell likened this to trying to solve a Rubik's Cube where if you try to fix one side, you run the risk of causing trouble somewhere else. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Steve Daines of Montana - two senators - had been concerned that while big corporations stood to get a big tax cut in the bill, so-called pass-through companies were not getting as much of a break.

So McConnell and his lieutenants have sweetened the offer for pass-through companies and given them a bigger tax cut. They also threw in a tax break for local property taxes. That was important to Maine Senator Susan Collins. Now, both those moves wind up costing the government money, and so that runs the risk of alienating the deficit hawks. One of those, Jeff Flake of Arizona, was won over with a rather vague promise to deal with DACA. That is the situation facing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

And that left Bob Corker of Tennessee. He's been the most vocal deficit hawk. He was pushing for some kind of trigger mechanism that would undo the tax cuts if deficits got too big. But that was very controversial, and ultimately McConnell and company decided they could live without Corker's vote and still pass this bill.

SIEGEL: But as you say, Jeff Flake, who was concerned about deficit, was won over by something to do with DACA. What about the deficit? Don't the hawks on the deficit still have something to worry about here?

HORSLEY: Yeah. And just yesterday, as you mentioned, congressional scorekeepers came out and said this bill doesn't begin to pay for itself. That's kind of a rebuke to the Republicans who have been saying for months that the economic growth spawned by these tax cuts would bring in so much money the government wouldn't have to worry about more red ink.

Now, the bean counters of the Joint Committee on Taxation say otherwise. They agree the tax cuts produce some economic growth but not nearly as much as the bill's supporters were banking on. And as a result, they say this measure will add about a trillion dollars to the federal debt over the next decade. For years, Republicans have said they're concerned about mounting deficits. In this case, though, most GOP senators have apparently decided they can live with that.

SIEGEL: But didn't the Treasury secretary say earlier in this process that this is a tax bill that will pay for itself?

HORSLEY: He did. Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, has said repeatedly this bill would pay for itself with faster economic growth. In fact, he said there were more than a hundred analysts at the Treasury Department who are running the numbers to prove that. Here he is talking to reporters back in April.


STEVEN MNUCHIN: This plan is going to lower the debt to GDP. The economic plan under Trump will grow the economy and will create massive amounts of revenues, trillions of dollars in additional revenue.

HORSLEY: Despite that claim, though, the Treasury Department has never produced an analysis that would back that up, and that prompted Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to call for an investigation. In fact the inspector general at the Treasury Department has launched a probe. Warren says either Treasury staffers did the analysis and then didn't release it maybe because it doesn't show what the secretary said it would, or they didn't run the numbers, in which case Mnuchin was just making it up. And either way, Warren says she's concerned.

SIEGEL: Scott, thinking back to when the House passed an ill-fated repeal of Obamacare, there was a big celebration at the White House. If the Senate actually passes this tax bill which has been approved by the House, will we see a victory lap by the president in that case?

HORSLEY: Well, so far the White House has been pretty circumspect. The president's been keeping a low profile today. In fact, a planned photo op this morning was abruptly called off. Now, that may be because Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, just pled guilty to lying to the FBI, and that could prompt some uncomfortable questions for the president.

But it may also be the White House realizes this is not yet a done deal. The Senate bill still has to be reconciled with the House version, so there is more work to be done. In general, though, the last-minute deal-making has moved the Senate bill closer to where the House was, so there are no obvious points of contention to throw this train off the rails.

SIEGEL: NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.