With another fight over the national debt brewing this summer, congressional Republicans are de-emphasizing their demand for politically painful cuts to retirement programs and focusing on a more popular prize: a thorough rewrite of the U.S. tax code.
Reining in spending on Social Security and Medicare remains an important policy goal for the GOP. But House leaders last week launched a series of meetings aimed at persuading rank-and-file lawmakers that tax reform is both wise policy and good politics and should be their top priority heading into talks with Democrats over the need to raise the federal debt limit.
The move comes weeks after President Barack Obama responded to GOP demands to cut expensive federal retirement benefits by offering to shrink Social Security cost-of-living adjustments and raise Medicare premiums. The proposals, included in the president’s budget request, outraged seniors, and some fear embracing them would be political suicide.
There is no such ambivalence about simplifying the tax code and lowering the top rate, which jumped from 35 percent to 39.6 percent as part of a year-end budget deal.
“(Republicans) will unite around tax reform,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who hosted the first “listening session” on the issue Thursday in his Capitol office. “The window is now.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., led the session, offering polling and focus-group data showing that voters are hungry for simpler, fairer tax laws. Camp has already started drafting legislation that would wipe out the current welter of exemptions and deductions and replace them with sharply lower rates.
The House strategy also holds some appeal in the Senate, where key Republicans say it may offer a more palatable alternative to negotiating a budget deal directly with Obama.
Camp said he has spoken to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about tax reform. Still, most Democrats dismiss it as a fantasy in these polarized times, saying such complex legislation could never be finished before Washington enters 2014 campaign mode, much less by September, when lawmakers will likely need to pass a bill to raise the debt limit or risk default.