Trump's new gamble: Can a tax plan rescue the GOP?

Politicians could draw many differing lessons from Sen. Luther Strange’s defeat in Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in Alabama — the risks of being appointed by a scandal-plagued governor would be a big one.

One lesson, however, is having immediate impact in Washington: The conservative voters who turn out in Republican primaries are still angry, and with Barack Obama no longer available as a target, they’re taking their fury out on their own party’s congressional leaders.

One way to think about the next 13 months will be whether Republicans can assuage that anger before it incinerates their congressional majorities.

Hello, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

GOP INSURGENCY, CHAPTER 3

As Lisa Mascaro described, Strange’s defeat at the hands of Roy Moore, Alabama’s former chief justice and a favorite of evangelical conservatives, has emboldened a new crop of insurgent candidates in Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and elsewhere.

Republicans have experienced successive waves of insurgencies over the past decade. The first began to gather in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency and burst into full view with the tea party candidates of 2010.

After Democrats successfully painted tea party candidates like Todd Aiken in Missouri and Sharron Angle in Nevada as extremists, the GOP establishment, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, vowed in 2014 to prevent any more such insurgents from winning Republican primaries.

“We are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell vowed at the time, and he largely succeeded.

But President Trump’s victory in 2016 showed how little control the Republican establishment really had.

Now Moore’s victory, despite Trump’s endorsement of Strange, has proven that the president, although he remains popular with Republican conservatives, can’t command the movement, either.

The Alabama vote could turn out to be the opening of a third chapter in the insurgent story — an effort by people like Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon to prove that Trumpism can outlast Trump, and maybe even successfully oppose him if the decidedly non-ideological president strays too far from the movement’s ideals.

HEALTH AND TAXES

As the Senate considered the latest Republican healthcare plan, two things were clear: The proposal was deeply unpopular with most voters, just like the previous Republican plans, and, as Noam Levey wrote, even Senate Republicans were unsure what their bill would do or whether it would work at all.

So why the frantic effort to pass it?

As several Republican senators said, they had promised voters for years that they would repeal Obamacare, and they needed to fulfill that promise, regardless of anything else. Now that they have once again failed to deliver, it’s unclear if Republicans can muster the political will to pass a bipartisan effort to fix some of the problems with the Affordable Care Act. The Republican lawmaker leading his party’s side of the bipartisan negotiations, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said he would sit down on Monday with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, to see if they can reach a deal he can sell to his colleagues.

In the meantime, however, the Republican failure on healthcare has raised the stakes on tax legislation. Having failed so dramatically at keeping one big promise, the Republicans can’t afford another big defeat.

Trump and other GOP leaders hope a victory on taxes will give them something that Republican candidates can tout as an accomplishment when they face voters in 2018.

But even with all that pressure, getting a tax bill through the House and Senate will not be easy for the administration. The current bill would raise the federal deficit by at least $150 billion a year for each of the next 10 years, a problem for deficit hawks. It creates winners and losers across the economy, each one an opening for lobbyists. And Trump hasn’t shown much ability to woo Democrats, making him hostage to the fractious GOP.

The president traveled to Indiana on Wednesday to pitch the tax plan as “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration — the last big tax cut, under Bush, was only 14 years ago.

Still, the measure promises some long-sought goals for the party’s wealthy backers. A cut in corporate taxes could be a boon for major companies and their executives. Repeal of the estate tax would benefit a small handful of extremely wealthy people whose estates are large enough to be subject to tax. A new, lower tax rate for so-called pass-through businesses could turn into a huge loophole for those with the money to hire savvy tax lawyers.

Whether the plan will deliver much benefit to average families is far less clear. The proposed big boost in the standard deduction will help some, but might leave many average Americans with no gain, as Jim Puzzanghera wrote. And the plan would clearly sock it to upper-middle-class residents of states with high income taxes, especially California, as Puzzanghera also explained. That could pose a big political problems for Republican House members from California, as Sarah Wire wrote.

[It’s no coincidence that California would also have taken the biggest hit under the Republican healthcare plan. The GOP has been unabashed about writing legislation that rewards its voters and punishes those in blue states].

OTHER NOTABLE STORIES

Trump keeps repeating that the healthcare bill failed because a senator was “in the hospital,” a false claim that even the White House doesn’t try to pretend is true.

As the substantive parts of his agenda stalled again on Capitol Hill, the president returned to the culture wars — attacking NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem. As Cathy Decker wrote, Trump's bully pulpit features an “us” vs. “them” approach, with race as a polarizing subtext. The players, themselves, responded by kneeling or locking arms.

Even as Trump was criticizing football players for demonstrating, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions gave a speech saying that free speech rights are “under attack” at colleges.

Speaking of colleges, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced new federal guidelines for handling sexual assault cases on campus. The new rules significantly shift guidance that had been issued by the Obama administration. They’re aimed at providing more protections to students — mostly young men — accused of sexual assaults.

As Evan Halper wrote, civil servants charge that the administration is punishing government workers who have expertise in climate change and environmental policy.

The administration announced travel ban 3.0 — the latest version of its restrictions on travel to the U.S. Meanwhile, the State Department announced that refugee admissions to the U.S. would be cut by more than half.

The devastation that Puerto Rico has suffered from this season’s hurricanes has become a political issue, with critics saying the Trump administration’s response to the island’s problems has been too slow. Late in the week, the White House named a military commander to manage relief efforts.

Twitter announced that it had found 201 accounts linked to Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. Leading Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said the social media service still needs to do a more thorough investigation.

THE SUPREME COURT’S NEW TERM

The justices get back to work on Monday. David Savage has this look at key cases before the court on gerrymandering and religious liberty, on which Justice Anthony Kennedy probably holds the deciding votes.

The court is already poised to deal a sharp blow to unions for teachers and public employees, Savage wrote. And the justices put off a final decision on Trump's travel ban after the administration issued its latest version. The court’s newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch drew protests with a speech at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

THE HIGH FLIER

Politico disclosed that Health Secretary Tom Price billed taxpayers for expensive charter flights for trips that could easily have been done using regular, commercial carriers. By week’s end, the total bill for Price’s noncommercial travel — both charter flight and military jets — was approaching $1 million.

Trump publicly expressed unhappiness. “We'll see,” he said, when asked if Price would be fired.

Price on Thursday said he would reimburse part of the cost of some of the flights.

AN EARLY CALIFORNIA PRIMARY

California lawmakers passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to move the state’s presidential primary to March in the hope of making it more relevant. Will that make the Golden State the kingmaker of the process? Nah, says Mark Barabak.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS

Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

If you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.

David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
51°