EVERETT, Wash. -- House Speaker Paul Ryan toured businesses in the Pacific Northwest this week to deliver the message that Republicans can produce a historic revision of the tax code, despite the difficulty of that undertaking and even while President Trump is dividing the party and the country.
Tax reform was always planned for the fall, and for Ryan, getting something done here is a chance to deliver a much-needed win for the GOP.
"I've been focused on this literally my adult life. But now, more than ever," Ryan said, a major overhaul of the tax code could "help reduce that anxiety" that the country feels over politics.
The idea that the moment calls for tax reform — the same goal Ryan pursued before Trump became president — is a proposition that meets with criticism both from Democrats and from some conservatives who would like to see Ryan more directly confront Trump.
"Just don't kid yourself that [tax reform] resolves the question of: Is Trump fit to be president, or what happens on the Russian investigation, or what happens with his fighting with McConnell, or are there going to be primaries in 10 different states between Trumpy and non-Trumpy Republicans, or what happens on the government shutdown or the wall," said William Kristol, the editor at large of the Weekly Standard who has criticized and opposed Trump.
Nevertheless, Ryan's belief that tax legislation could help right the ship is what brought him to the American Northwest, talking up a reform on a two-day tour of the Intel and Boeing factories near Portland, Ore., and Seattle.
Incidentally, both of those companies' CEOs quit White House advisory councils this month in response to Trump's equivocations about white supremacy and neo-Nazism.
But they hosted Ryan for his tour. Ryan took the trip partly to highlight that business and the GOP are connected more tightly now than ever on taxes, whatever other rifts may be developing.
"I have not seen the kind of coalescing around tax reform from the business community like I have seen today," Ryan told the Washington Examiner in an interview at Intel's Hillsboro, Ore., campus, ruling out the possibility of losing business support.
While Ryan flew drones at Intel and explored unfinished 787s at Boeing this week, his ally, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, went on his own roadshow. The Texan tax-writer visited UPS' aircraft maintenance hangar in Louisville, Ky., and AT&T's headquarters in Dallas, garnering strong expressions of support from those companies.
The two engaged in the kind of barnstorming that a president typically would be expected to do to advance a major initiative. Meanwhile, Trump tweeted out slights of Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans.
Ryan maintains that he doesn't need better leadership from the White House to complete the tremendous undertaking of getting a tax bill through the House and Senate and signed by Trump.
The never-ending drama, Ryan told the Washington Examiner, "actually helps us concentrate our minds and focus on getting this done, especially because of the acrimony that's in America and the distraction."
Also, he added, tax reform is the one area in which the White House and congressional Republicans are most in sync.
Many Republicans believe that eventually Trump will have to take a leading role in persuading the public to support tax reform and pressuring lawmakers reluctant to vote for a major bill that will end many tax breaks prized by constituents.
When then-President Ronald Reagan successfully enacted tax reform in 1986, it was his top messaging priority, and he used "every bit of persuasive capacity that he had as Ronald Reagan" to get it completed, noted Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois.
"I think that in order for tax reform to be successful, President Trump is going to have to play a similar role," said Roskam, the chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on taxes.
Rep. Sean Duffy, a friend and close ally of Ryan's from the Wisconsin delegation, said he has lobbied the White House to get Trump out at rallies promoting tax reform. "I think he should be doing two speeches a week" on the topic, he said.
By Ryan's own reckoning, the difficulty of tax reform is even more daunting now than it was in Reagan's time. Today, U.S. companies need a cut of 10 to 15 percentage points in the corporate rate just to get near the average for rich countries. And because Democrats have moved left on taxes and are inclined to oppose Trump at every turn, Republicans have to do it alone, with a tiny two-vote margin in the Senate.
Not that Ryan has scaled back his ambitions. His goal is a permanent reform of the tax code that lowers rates for individuals and corporations and simplifies the tax system by eliminating many of the loopholes and tax breaks that have been sneaked in over the years by lobbyists.
Such an approach would be extremely difficult. Some Republicans, especially in the White House and Senate, might be open to a more expedient route.
In recent months, as the Republican congressional majority has burned through the beginning of Trump's first term without major legislative achievements, some conservatives have called for a simple temporary tax cut. In recent days, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has warned Congress to quickly pass a tax cut or face the prospect of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Steve Forbes, the media magnate and former presidential candidate, asked a convention of conservative activists to lobby for Republicans to discard parliamentary rules to ram through tax cuts.
Ryan, though, derided temporary tax cuts as "sugar-high tax policies," employing the same epithet he once applied to former President Barack Obama's stimulus spending.
"Businesses aren't doing multibillion-dollar, multiyear capital decisions if they see a tax code that's unpredictable," Ryan said.
In the role of Ways and Means chairman, the job he always wanted and briefly had, Ryan would have had the time to systematically take his colleagues aside and try to sway them on the merits of a permanent reform, as he once sold the entire conference on Medicare reform. This year, Brady has played that role, hosting regular, informal dinners with members to discuss permanence, among other topics.
House leaders have been fairly consistent in that message. Asked if she would be OK with a temporary tax cut, Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black of Tennessee responded, "permanent, permanent, permanent."
It "really hurts" executives not to be able to plan for the long term, she explained.
Nevertheless, Ryan acknowledged, there are differences of opinion even within the House Republican conference on the merits of a short-term tax cut similar to the ones that former President George W. Bush enacted. Partly, that's because of the high turnover in their ranks. Two-thirds of the conference, by his count, are new since 2010.
Part of the difficulty is that, in the tax reform scenario Ryan envisions, Senate procedure requires that reductions in tax rates would have to be offset by tax increases elsewhere so that overall revenue doesn't fall.
That concept rubs some conservatives the wrong way. Some elected Republicans simply want the government to take in less money.
Others, though, want to ensure that tax reform "does not do violence to the budget" by hemorrhaging revenues, Roskam said. "That'll continue to be litigated."
For his part, Ryan said he believes that the public would be willing to give up even the most prized tax breaks, such as ones for retirement savings and homeownership, if they could be convinced that their tax rates would drop dramatically in exchange.
Accordingly, he is traveling the country, trying to convince the public that tax reform is in their interest.
At stake is the not just the reform legislation Ryan has always wanted but also, possibly, the Republican majority he leads.
"I think the pressure to get tax reform done is significant not just for Paul, but for every Republican," Duffy said.
Ryan declined to speculate on the political ramifications of falling short on tax reform. But he acknowledged the stakes.
"We have an obligation to make good on our word," he said. "And if we don't make good on our word, then, yeah, I think that's going to be a political problem for us."