WASHINGTON, D.C. - 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 launched a series of meetings last week aimed at convincing 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 Obama responded to Republican 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 Republicans fear that embracing them would be political suicide.
There is no such ambivalence, however, 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 that still rankles Republicans.
"The conference 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 first-floor 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 started drafting legislation that would wipe out the current welter of exemptions and deductions and replace them with sharply lower rates, an approach championed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of Obama's fiscal commission.
"We're not going to take the current code and see what comes out. We're going to take a blank piece of paper and see what goes back in," said Camp, who advocates a streamlined code with just two brackets and a top rate of 25 percent.
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. After two dinners with the president and a meeting Thursday with senior administration officials, Senate Republicans are under pressure from the White House to produce their own debt-reduction plan to counter Obama's proposal to reduce borrowing by $1.8 trillion over the next decade through higher taxes as well as cuts to retirement programs.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is staying out of the talks, and it's not clear who would make such an offer on the GOP's behalf. Republicans involved in the process say they are reluctant to form another ad hoc "gang" and hope to channel negotiations through the Senate Finance Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over taxes, Social Security and Medicare. Plus, retiring Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has a track record of working with Republicans and is eager to strike a deal.
However, the senior Republican on the panel, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, said after Thursday's meeting with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough that he is not inclined to take the lead in drafting a GOP counteroffer. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the senators are also worried about agreeing to anything that would undercut House leaders.
"We really can't go first," Hatch said. "If I were the White House, I'd be working very hard with a guy like Camp, who's a reasonable guy and smart to boot. And highly thought-of by both sides."
Camp said he has spoken to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and that aides to both men have "begun discussions" 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 campaign mode for the 2014 elections, much less by September, when lawmakers will likely need to pass legislation to raise the debt limit or risk a national default.
"They want tax reform as the price for raising the debt ceiling, but where's the plan?" said Rep. Sander M. Levin (Mich.), the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. "So far, what we mostly have is a 25 percent rate without any kind of hint as to how to get there."