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Senate Republicans cautiously optimistic as they turn to tax reform

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks to Sinclair Broadcast Group on Capitol Hill on Aug. 2, 2017. (SBG)

With the House already in recess and the Senate scrambling to get some non-controversial votes done before leaving town, some lawmakers are looking ahead to an ambitious push to reform the tax code when they return in September.

Republicans in the Senate have spent much of the last few months attempting to piece together a health care reform bill that can garner 51 votes, but they have so far proven unsuccessful. After the latest failed effort to pass a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last week, many frustrated senators say it is time to move on to other priorities.

Tax reform is at the top of that list. The White House has offered broad guidance on what President Donald Trump would like to see in a reform bill, including a massive corporate tax cut and streamlining of the tax code. The specifics of how Congress will get there are less clear.

Although tax reform is a similarly complex issue directly impacting nearly all Americans, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is optimistic that the Senate can avoid the kind of the obstacles that derailed the health care legislation.

“I do think there’s a lot more consensus on it,” he said.

Republicans agree on the need for comprehensive tax reform and some of the major tenets of it, but there are still entrenched differences that must be smoothed out to get to 51 votes.

“I want to have a tax reform that helps grow our economy,” Rubio said. “Effort number one here is to grow the economy and create jobs. People need jobs and they need jobs that pay more.”

He is also working with the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, on a child tax credit and family leave policies intended to drive more of the benefits of the reform plan to working families.

“The family is the most important institution in society,” he said. “Parenting is the most important job any of us do. Our tax code should recognize that.”

It remains to be seen how much effort Republicans plan to put toward finding a bipartisan agreement with Democrats on taxes, or how open Democrats are to a realistic compromise. In the event of an impasse, the GOP is likely to attempt to use the reconciliation process again to push a bill through without any Democratic votes.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney indicated Wednesday that going it alone is the White House’s preferred approach.

“My gut is that a tax bill looks a lot weaker — a lot less likely to get us to 3 percent economic growth — if we've got 8, 10, 12, 14 Democrats on it," Mulvaney said on “Fox & Friends.”

For the moment, the Senate seems to be moving forward with at least a shot at bipartisanship, though. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said he met with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, earlier in the day and the plan is to proceed through the regular committee process.

In a dramatic return to the Senate floor last week amid his treatment for brain cancer, Sen. John McCain delivered an impassioned speech on the virtues of bipartisanship and the need to follow normal order. McCain later became one of three Republicans who voted against the Obamacare repeal bill—which was devised largely in secret with no Democratic input—helping the minority party defeat it.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Wednesday that McCain gave a good speech, but it glossed over fundamental differences of philosophy between the parties that sometimes trump the desire to work together.

“Do you want government to get bigger and bigger and bigger, or do you want it to be smaller and smaller like I do?” he asked.

Good governing and good legislation often require some give and take from both sides, Shelby acknowledged, but not everything is negotiable.

“Sometimes you have some principles you don’t want to give up and you shouldn’t give up,” he said. “I think you have to decide what those are and what they’re not.”

Boozman hopes measures aimed at providing tax relief to the middle class will draw some Democratic support for the tax reform package, but either way, he has firm goals in mind for the final product.

“Everything really boils down to the economy, jobs, jobs, jobs, and trying to get a bigger paycheck, and that really is the bottom line,” he said.