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Republicans Move On Tax Overhaul In House And Senate

Seated behind a stack of IRS and tax volumes, Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y. (left), and Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., attend a Ways and Means Committee debate on the GOP tax plan on Wednesday.
J. Scott Applewhite
Seated behind a stack of IRS and tax volumes, Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y. (left), and Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., attend a Ways and Means Committee debate on the GOP tax plan on Wednesday.

Congressional Republicans aim to take critical steps Thursday toward fulfilling their pledge to overhaul the nation's tax code by the end of the year.

The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to approve sweeping legislation to cut taxes for most individuals and businesses on the same day that Senate Republicans are set to unveil their own legislative vision for taxes. The dueling proposals are part of a broader plan that GOP leaders hope will end with both chambers passing a compromise tax bill by the end of the year.

Congressional leaders want to spend the remainder of the year focused on fulfilling President Trump's promise to sign tax cuts into law by Christmas. But first the GOP will have to resolve lingering disagreements over which tax breaks should be eliminated to help pay for those cuts.

Most Republicans say they must pass a tax bill this year to follow through on a key campaign promise to voters. If they fail, many Republicans believe they will pay a serious political price during the midterm elections next year.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday that he believes cutting taxes will "bear fruit politically" by helping families make ends meet.

"We've got to get on with keeping our promise," Ryan said at an event sponsored by the Washington Examiner. "One of the chief promises we made when we ran for office ... was that we would do tax reform and tax cuts for families, for people, and so we've got to get on with that."

The first step Thursday will be for the House Ways and Means Committee to wrap up debate on its legislation after four days of deliberations. The committee aims to approve the bill by the end of the day, paving the way for a vote in the full House next week.

The House GOP plan would permanently slash the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent with a separate 25 percent rate for small businesses. The plan would also take steps to make it harder for hedge funds and international corporations to avoid paying some U.S. taxes.

On the individual side, House Republicans plan to reduce the number of existing tax brackets from seven to four, while keeping a top tax rate of 39.6 percent for the highest earners. Under the plan, taxpayers would see their standard deduction double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for families, a change Republicans say would cut taxes for the majority of taxpayers.

Democrats say most of the benefits in the bill would go to big businesses and a handful of very wealthy people. They point to a recent estimate from the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation that found roughly 56 percent of taxpayers earning over $1 million a year would see a tax break of over $500 by 2025. More than half of those earning between $30,000 and $40,000 will see a tax break of under $100 that same year.

The committee worked this week to make some changes to the bill, including adjusting regulations on international businesses, that may drive up the overall cost of the legislation. Following those changes, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the House plan would cost roughly $1.7 trillion over a decade, after factoring in payments on the new debt created by growing the deficit.

Those projections illustrate one of the most difficult elements of these tax talks. Republicans have been working around the clock behind the scenes to make sure their tax cuts don't create major losses for the federal government.

Deficits will play an even bigger role in the tax debate in the Senate. Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee are expected to unveil their proposals late in the day Thursday with plans to begin hearings on the bill early next week.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters earlier this week that he expects the bill will differ from the House legislation but did not say what changes would be included. Unlike the House, Senate tax writers are required to make sure their tax bill loses a maximum of $1.5 trillion over a decade.

That's because GOP leaders plan to take advantage of special Senate budget rules that allow some tax and spending legislation to pass with 51 votes instead of the 60 votes needed for most other legislation. That would allow Republicans, who control 52 votes in the Senate, to pass the legislation without the help of a single Democrat.

Senate leaders must carefully craft their bill to meet those strict deficit guidelines while still winning the votes of all but two of their members. If they succeed, the House and Senate would go on to negotiate a compromise bill that would need a second approval in both chambers before becoming law.

Republicans have a long road ahead but House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said Wednesday he is confident the two chambers will reach an agreement.

"We're going to look to improve our bill at every step of the way," Brady said in an interview on NBC. "We hope the Senate passes their best version of tax reform as well. What I'm confident of [is], we will reconcile and find common ground in the end."

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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