- 18 октября 2017, 00:58
- POLITICO. Top Stories
President Donald Trump and Senate GOP leaders are desperate for a show of legislative unity on tax reform after the collapse of Obamacare repeal.
But they’re unlikely to get it thanks to Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. The frequent GOP contrarian is digging in against the budget as written — an ominous start to Republicans’ tax push at a time when leaders would like to soothe jittery donors and voters.
Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been quietly working to get all Republicans on board with the GOP budget. Unanimity would give the party critical momentum after a brutal few months of intraparty fighting and send a clear message that all 52 members are in play on tax reform.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose defection along with Paul’s helped doom the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill, was also wavering on the budget until Tuesday. But he’s now willing to fall in line, soothed sufficiently that there will be a future boost in defense spending.
However, in part for those hawkish promises, Paul may be the sole GOP “no” vote on the budget — just as he was on the GOP’s January budget that led to the failure on Obamacare. And his fellow Republican senators are already slamming Paul for shattering any hoped-for harmony on tax reform.
“This vote is about whether or not we’re going to lay the groundwork to cutting taxes to revive a stagnant economy. It’s about the future of the Republican Party,” griped Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) about Paul’s potential “no” vote. “How many times do you have to see this movie before you figure out what’s going on here?”
Graham added, “President Trump says Rand Paul’s his friend. … I don’t think you can be a friend of the president or the conservative cause and vote against this budget resolution.”
Paul offered his party an olive branch on Tuesday, voting to start debate on the budget even though GOP leaders expected a “no” vote, according to one Republican senator. Paul said Trump was “influential” in getting him to vote for the motion to proceed to the plan; the two spoke ahead of the vote.
And Paul says he can still be persuaded to get to “yes,” though leaders fear agreeing to his request to cut $43 billion in defense spending would lose the votes of military hawks like Graham and McCain.
“The president wants a ‘yes’ vote on the budget,” said Paul, who golfed with Trump over the weekend one day after Graham did. “I talked to him this morning. And I told him: ‘I’ll be a ‘yes’ vote but you’ve got to tell the swamp up here that they can’t just keep spending money left and right.’”
The budget should be relatively easy for the entire GOP to support, particularly with so much pressure to produce after the health care debacle. The budget is nonbinding and unlikely to affect later spending bills; instead it is essentially a procedural vote to trigger a tax reform attempt that can evade the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.
So the thinking goes in McConnell’s office and the White House that if the party really wants to do tax reform, everyone will vote to kick off the process.
“I hope we can get everybody. But Rand may be a lost cause,” said John Thune of South Dakota, No. 3 in the Senate GOP leadership. “You would like to have everybody on board.”
But if it’s just a symbolic vote, Paul asks, then why won’t “so-called Republican conservatives” throw him a bone?
“Every one of these people says it doesn’t matter what’s in the budget. But when push comes to shove and somebody wants to have something in the budget to make it mean something, then they’re opposed to it,” Paul fumed.
Instead of solidarity, Paul is descending into a brutal fight with Graham and McCain over defense spending supplied by the budget’s overseas contingency funds. He says McCain and Graham “basically are not fiscally conservative” and is accusing his party of increasing the debt — a debate that’s already clouding tax reform negotiations.
Graham traded barbs with Paul on Twitter, warning him: “Don’t screw up #TaxReform now. You already saved #Obamacare.”
Paul responded by calling a media conference phone call and on-camera news conference in which he accused McCain and Graham of wanting “unlimited” defense spending. The message was clear: Barring a massive about-face, Paul is dead set against the bill as proposed.
McCain had to be convinced that a boost to defense spending will happen later this year to go along with the budget. Asked about Paul trying to roll that back, McCain dismissed his colleague entirely.
“I’ve had to worry about a lot of senators. Rand Paul’s not one of them,” McCain said with a chuckle.
But it’s less of a laughing matter for Senate leaders. Paul’s influence over Trump is real; they speak frequently and play golf together. On health care, Paul’s communications with Trump forced GOP leaders to abandon initial plans to repeal Obamacare with no replacement, setting the stage for a months-long comedy of errors that culminated in failure to repeal the law.
And Paul said he wants Trump to weigh in on the budget and get McConnell, McCain and Graham to back down on the $43 billion at issue.
“The president would do it, but leadership here appears unwilling to do it,” Paul said. “We are trying to get the White House to put pressure on the Senate leadership to not be absolutely profligate spenders.”
Despite his potential opposition to the budget, Paul says he’s “all in” on tax cuts. But GOP leaders aren’t so sure. As Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas put it: “A vote against the budget is a vote against tax reform.”
“I would love to get everybody together,” said Cornyn, the party’s chief vote counter. “But that may or may not be possible.”
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.