U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says he wants to muster the same public outcry that prevented repeal of the Affordable Care Act to turn back Republican tax-cut plans benefiting corporations and high-income earners.
The Oregon Democrat sounded that message during a series of town hall meetings earlier this month coinciding with releases of separate House and Senate GOP tax plans.
"As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, I am not going to sit by and let the Grinch steal a middle-class Christmas," Wyden said.
"People did not think we had a chance before. But we — all of the people who spoke out against the health bill — beat them on health care. We defied the odds.
"They say everybody's not worked up enough about taxes yet. That's why I'm having four town hall meetings this weekend and losing my voice. I'm trying to get everybody worked up."
Wyden spoke about the House plan at meetings in Tigard, Sandy, Keizer and Forest Grove.
He also spoke at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 9, after Senate Republicans unveiled their plan, which appears headed for a vote of the full Senate after Thanksgiving. The House passed its version on Thursday, Nov. 16, although 13 Republicans joined all Democrats in opposition on a 227-205 vote.
While he was more critical of the House GOP plan than the Senate GOP plan, Wyden said both still favor corporations and high-income earners over the middle class.
"Tax reform can be bipartisan if you focus on the middle class. That's what voters demanded," he said of Nov. 7 election returns that showed big gains for Democrats.
"I hope the White House finally gets that message… But if they insist on the same old trickle-down myth of tax cuts, we believe they ought to be willing to stand by it."
A web of changes
Wyden has clashed with the Republican chairman of the Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, in objecting to both House and Senate versions that must be reconciled.
Both would cut the corporate tax rate from a maximum 35 percent to 20 percent, although the Senate version delays the cut for one year, until 2019.
For individuals, both versions would reduce the number of income-tax brackets, eliminate the alternative minimum tax for high-end households and almost double the standard deduction for middle-class families. The personal exemption would go.
Both versions also change the estate tax, which now applies only to estates greater than $5.5 million for individuals and $11 million for couples. The House plan phases out the tax; the Senate plan doubles the thresholds to $11 million and $22 million.
The Senate version retains deductions that the House plan eliminates for interest on student loans and high medical expenses.
But the Senate version also eliminates deductions for all state and local taxes. The House plan retains a $10,000 deduction for property taxes.
"This bill is just riddled with double standards that are really hard on working-class families," Wyden said. "A lot of middle-class people are reaching for Pepto-Bismol now."
The Senate plan also eliminates the tax penalty on individuals who fail to obtain health insurance — an action undercutting the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have failed to repeal outright so far. The action would save billions for tax cuts but 13 million people would lose insurance coverage over a decade.
The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that business would gain $1 trillion in net cuts, about two-thirds of the total.
President Donald Trump, who has made the bill his legislative priority, wants Congress to put it on his desk by the end of the year.
In contrast, the most recent overhaul of the tax code — signed by a Republican president in 1986 after being passed by a Democratic House and Republican Senate — took the better part of two years to hammer out.
"They want to get this done before anybody has passed the cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving supper," Wyden said. "They're talking about remaking the American economy between now and Thanksgiving. The reason they are trying to move so fast is that this bill cannot stand sunlight."
Under budget procedural rules, only 50 votes are required to pass a tax bill in the Senate, assuming a tie-breaker by Vice President Mike Pence.
Still, Republican proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act were thwarted earlier this year, when a few Republicans joined 46 Democrats and two independents in opposition.
Wyden said he is hoping public pressure can bring about a similar result on the GOP tax plan.
One Republican so far has said he opposes the Senate plan.
The budget resolution passed by Republican majorities in Congress assumes $1.5 trillion in lost tax collections over a decade because of the tax cuts. The national debt now tops $20 trillion.
Wyden said after his town halls that the budget also assumes future spending cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, the federal health insurance programs for older and low-income people, to help offset the tax losses. Medicaid also pays two-thirds of nursing home costs for older people who have spent down their assets.
"I doubt that Oregonians, based on these meetings, are in favor of eliminating the estate tax — even though virtually nobody pays it — in order to cut Medicare and Medicaid," he said.
NOTE: Second update of story that was originally posted Nov. 4. Includes House approval on a mostly party-line vote; Senate Finance Committee moving toward advancing its version to a Senate vote.
Updates story originally posted Nov. 4; includes Wyden comments on Nov. 9 after Senate Republicans unveiled their own tax plan.