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.
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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.
Many GOP lawmakers in competitive districts already have concerns about supporting the bill, and could balk at being asked to cast a politically risky vote on a plan that may never become law.
"I don't think that's the president's bill," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) about the House tax bill, speaking after the meeting. Asked if the Senate bill would be the plan fully backed by the administration, Mr. Manchin responded, "we haven't seen it yet" to know.
On taxes, the GOP is eager to avoid a replay of the failure of Congress to get a health-care overhaul bill to Mr. Trump's desk. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill but the Senate failed on several different attempts to follow suit.
During the meeting Tuesday, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn echoed Mr. Trump, these people said, leaving attendees with the impression that the White House isn't as invested in the legislation being considered this week by the House Ways and Means Committee as it may be in the Senate tax package, which hasn't been released.
"Don't get too hung up on the House bill," Mr. Cohn said, according to two people in the room.
Asked about Mr. Cohn's remark, a White House official said that he was simply urging senators who are harping on concerns about the House bill to focus on their own legislation. "It was like: 'Your bill doesn't exist yet. don't get hung up on what you don't like about their bill and sink the entire process,'" the official said.
The official said the president's comment was "meant in the same way" as Mr. Cohn's comment and shouldn't be seen as a sign he doesn't support the House version of the bill.
Mr. Manchin convened the meeting with Mr. Cohn and Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, at the Library of Congress. A dozen Democratic lawmakers -- a mix of vulnerable senators from red states and other centrists -- attended.
In his comments, according to people in the room, Mr. Cohn played down concerns about the House bill, which ranged from the impact on teachers from a scrapped deduction for classroom supplies, a matter raised by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.), to broader worries about the impact on manufacturing and the deficit, raised by Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Michael Bennet of Colorado, respectively.
Shortly after the meeting began, Mr. Cohn stepped out of the room after receiving a call on his cellphone. When he returned minutes later, he announced that he had the president, then in Seoul, South Korea, on speaker phone.
Amid 10 minutes of wide-ranging comments -- people in the room say he outlined the itinerary of his trip to Asia and expressed to Democrats his desire for filibuster reform because it's "terrible" for Republicans -- he addressed the tax overhaul, urging Democrats to get behind legislation that he said would be "very popular."
One Democratic Senate aide said Mr. Trump's intervention risked the GOP repeating the health-care bill failure.
"Here is this effort to set up a serious engagement on tax reform and Trump, even while he's in Southeast Asia, still managed to throw things off the rails," the aide said.
Write to Eli Stokols at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 08, 2017 17:03 ET (22:03 GMT)