White House signals doubts about House GOP tax plan

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C.

The White House hosted a meeting this week with centrist Senate Democrats, hoping to persuade them to support a far-right Republican tax plan. In a bit of a surprise, Donald Trump phoned into the meeting, apparently hoping the personal touch would help persuade them.

By all accounts, the presidential outreach didn't go especially well. Trump talked more than he listened; he couldn't address any of the substantive details; he brazenly lied about the tax benefits that would go towards the wealthy in his party's plan; and he apparently shared an anecdote about a fictional conversation with his accountant.

But that's not the part that stood out for me. Rather, what struck me as important is what the Wall Street Journal reported:

President Donald Trump moved to assuage centrist Democratic senators' concerns about the House Republican tax overhaul by telling them the Senate version will be more to their liking, in comments that risk muddying the GOP's effort to get a bill passed."You're going to like it a whole lot more," said Mr. Trump of the Senate version, according to two people who attended a Tuesday gathering of Democratic senators that Mr. Trump called into.The comments risk complicating Republican efforts to present a united front on both the Senate and House versions of the tax bill to keep it on track. Publicly, the president has praised the House plan, but his comments could fuel doubts among lawmakers about how wedded he is to that version.

It wasn't just Trump. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn reportedly told the centrist Senate Democrats, "Don't get too hung up on the House bill."

When Cohn sat down with CNBC's John Harwood, and Harwood pressed him on some of the most unpopular parts of the House Republican proposal, Cohn responded with a similar pitch: "Yeah, look, first of all, we're not done. The only thing you have to work on now is the House blueprint. We're going to get a Senate plan later this week."

If you're a House Republican, and your alarm bells aren't going off, you're not paying close enough attention.

Right now, there are basically two parallel tracks to the GOP's tax proposals: the House plan and the Senate plan. In the House, an unpopular proposal, filled with politically suicidal provisions, is set to clear committee this week and reach the House floor for a vote next week.

In the Senate, a rival bill is supposed to be unveiled today, and by all accounts, it'll be less ambitious.

Trump and his team have publicly endorsed the House bill, and they expect it to pass, but Trump World is also taking steps to support a more moderate Senate bill. Or to use Gary Cohn's reported language, "Don't get too hung up on the House bill."

The message to House Republicans isn't exactly subtle: you're about to stick out your neck for a tax plan the public doesn't want, which the Senate will ignore, and which the president is already skeptical of.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we've seen this story before: during the health care fight, Trump expressed support for a right-wing House plan, only to tell senators soon after that the House bill was “mean,” “cold-hearted,” and a “son of a bitch.”

More than 200 House Republicans voted for a radical health care overhaul, only to discover that their bill couldn't pass the Senate, and their party's president didn't really like their bill after all. To Democrats' delight, no one had their backs.

A few months later, it's happening again. If you were a House Republican, and you were on the fence about whether to vote for the GOP tax plan next week, wouldn't you feel a little nervous right now?