ROBERT COSTA: House Republicans pass a sweeping overhaul, but at what cost? I’m Robert Costa. We take you inside the tax debate. Plus, Democratic Senator Al Franken faces an ethics investigation and allegations continue to pile up against Republican Senate contender Roy Moore, tonight on Washington Week.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) This is about giving hardworking taxpayers bigger paychecks, more take-home pay. This is about giving those families who are struggling peace of mind.
MR. COSTA: The House passes a $1.5 trillion tax-cut package, scoring a momentary victory for President Trump.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Thank you. The tax is going really well.
MR. COSTA: But the path ahead in the Senate is more complicated, as GOP lawmakers add the repeal of the federal insurance mandate. At least one Republican says he’s opposed.
SENATOR RON JOHNSON (R-WI): (From video.) I’m not for the current version. What I want to see is the information to prove the kind of economic growth we’re going to get with all of our tax provisions.
MR. COSTA: Democrats say the GOP plan is a gift to the rich that will raise taxes on middle-income families and scale back health insurance coverage.
ROY MOORE: (From video.) This is an effort by Mitch McConnell and his cronies to steal this election from the people of Alabama, and they will not stand for it.
MR. COSTA: The tense fallout surrounding former Alabama Judge Roy Moore’s past and his potential future if elected to the Senate.
KAYLA MOORE: (From video.) He will not step down.
MR. COSTA: And Democratic Senator Al Franken faces an ethics investigation amid accusations of sexual misconduct.
We discuss it all with Jackie Calmes of The Los Angeles Times, Jeremy Peters of The New York Times, Nancy Cordes of CBS News, and Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. After weeks of fits and starts, the House passed a tax-cut bill on Thursday, moving President Trump and Republicans a step closer to their first major legislative win of the year. The action, it now moves to the Senate, where there are glimmers of trouble with Democrats and some resistance from Republicans. The stakes are high, and the schedule is tight with Christmas the informal deadline. Nancy, what’s fascinating about what’s happening right now on Capitol Hill, it’s a return to traditional fault lines, the core Republican values – tax cuts – versus the core Democratic values. Is that really what’s at the heart of this debate?
NANCY CORDES: Yeah, I mean, this is an old-school fight that was going on long before Obamacare was even a word that had ever been uttered in the halls of Congress. And it really came to a crescendo on Thursday night, when you had Orrin Hatch, a stalwart Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a devoted liberal, finally, after 25 hours over four days debating this GOP tax plan, they just decided to have it out. And Brown made the case that all Democrats have been making, which is that this is a giveaway to the wealthy, to corporations, that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, and that the middle class will eventually see its taxes going up. While Orrin Hatch and the other Republicans on the panel say, no, no, all boats will be lifted by this, this is going to put businesses in a better position, make them more competitive, and that means more jobs for everybody.
MR. COSTA: Ed, what changes in this bill as it heads to the Senate – it seems like one thing that may not change is the cut of the corporate rate from 35 percent to 20 percent.
ED O’KEEFE: That’s in there. That’s in –
MR. COSTA: Sometimes in Washington is what doesn’t change that tells you a lot what really the bill’s all about.
MR. O’KEEFE: Exactly. So that stays as-is in the House plan. I think the two biggest things that will be seized upon in the coming weeks are the fact that the Senate is adding a repeal of the individual mandate, the cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act, to this bill, in part to generate some revenue and to make it easier to pass in the Senate under the weird rules that they have to use in regards to how much it can cost. There are a bunch of senators in both parties who said, wait guys, we litigated this already. Why are we doing this again? However, most Republicans holding firm to that idea.
The other one that sticks out to me, that I think is going to be an issue once they go back to the House with the compromise version, is that it would eliminate all deductions for state and local taxes, or SALT, they call it. The House compromise was that you can deduct $10,000 of your property taxes. The Senate doesn’t have that at all. This is partly because big, high-tax states, California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, they don’t have a Republican serving the Senate.
But in the House, there are almost three dozen Republicans representing suburban communities in those states, who went to leaders and said: You cannot make me vote for this or expect me to vote for it, and also see me get reelected. So those are the two, I think, bigger ones. The other problem in the Senate, of course, is just the politics. It’s a narrow margin. And you’ve got three to six Republican senators whose votes are still unknown at this point for various reasons.
MR. COSTA: But, Jackie, what does that mean, though, if that happens, if that Obamacare mandate is repealed? What does it mean if you’re an American who counts on some of those subsidies or funding?
JACKIE CALMES: Well, it is the reason that the Joint Committee on Taxation has said that people who make from $10(,000) to $30,000 a year will, in effect, not get a tax cut. And people $75,000 and under eventually won’t either, because they’re losing that tax credit for that health coverage and the subsidies. And, you know, the Republicans are arguing, well, that’s not really a tax increase for them because it’s just making people, as someone said, not having to pay for crappy health insurance. Well, but now they’re going to be uninsured. And so this comes back to all of us, where they’re going to be back in the emergency rooms to get their coverage. They’re not going to have insurance coverage to get their care.
And the rest of us are going to be paying higher premiums and higher costs in the hospital because of the fact that these people will become, once again, what Republican Senator Chuck Grassley used to call “free riders” back in the years when Republicans were for an individual mandate, for the very reason that people had to take responsibility and get health care coverage. They were “free riders” because they were just going to ERs, or getting free health care. So this is the – this is where the health care bill debate has gotten conflated with the tax debate. But it is – it is – it affects costs of living and quality of life.
MR. COSTA: When you look at why they’re intertwined, Jeremy, you got to ask the question of why. Why are Republicans moving on health care, as well as moving on taxes? Is it because the base wants it? You cover Breitbart and the base so closely. You interviewed Steve Bannon recently. Are they clamoring for what’s happening on Capitol Hill?
JEREMY PETERS: Not really. In the abstract, people like the idea of a tax cut. But you see this poll that just came out from Quinnipiac the other day, 16 percent of Americans think that it will actually cut their taxes. That should frighten every Republican on Capitol Hill right now.
With regard to the health care mandate, though, the reason they’re doing that – the reason it’s in the Senate bill, as Ed said, they need to pay for this somehow, right? It’s also satisfying to the base, to your point. They’re – seven years went by. Republicans said: Put us in the catbird seat. We will deliver. We will repeal Obamacare. They tried. They failed. And it’s still not clear to me that they’ll be able to do it next year. So they needed to have this in there as kind of a demonstration, OK, we’ll give it one more shot. In the end though, you don’t hear many people talking about it. It’s not part of the conversation around the tax debate by and large, because most people realize it’s not going to happen.
MS. CORDES: Right. And interestingly originally it was the president who said: Hey, why don’t you throw a repeal of the individual mandate in there? That way you can bring the top rate down from 39.5 percent to 35 percent. Republicans balked at that because they said we’re already getting slammed for making this a big boon to the wealthy. Getting rid of the individual mandate which, by and large, as Jackie pointed out, helps low income people – and then doing that to bring rich people’s taxes down is not going to fly. But they decided what we can do is bump up the tax cut for middle-income Americans and double the tax – the child tax credit. And so that’s what that money is going towards. And trying to lift it out at this point would really put them in a big fiscal bind.
MS. CALMES: But Jeremy pointed out that the reason they did this was not just to salvage their promise to repeal Obamacare, but to get the money from not paying out those subsidies anymore so they could pay for more tax cuts. Even so, the fact remains that these bills will add $1.5 trillion over 10 years in the first 10 years to the debt.
MR. PETERS: I thought they were going to pay for themselves. Isn’t that – isn’t that the theory?
MS. CALMES: Oh, yeah, find me a credible economist that believes that – yeah.
MR. PETER: Right. I saw Larry Summers today doing an interview saying that it’s just a fantasy to assume that these tax cuts will generate so much growth that they will somehow magically pay for themselves. I think that they will generate – you know, in a perfect-case scenario, yes, generate some economic growth, but this –
MS. CALMES: And they’ve done this to get more money for tax cuts. And yet, the tax cuts for individuals expire in 2025, when the corporate tax cuts are permanent.
MR. COSTA: In the Senate plan.
MS. CALMES: In the Senate plan.
MR. O’KEEFE: And you know what the Democrats are doing when Republicans voted for this, when the tally was called? Bye-bye.
MR. COSTA: They really think this is going to cause a wave?
MR. O’KEEFE: Because they are convinced this is going to cause a huge wave. You’ve now combined raising taxes potentially on lower-income and middle-income Americans plus, in the Senate, you’re causing, once again, the unpopular prospect of ending the individual mandate.
MR. COSTA: But, Ed, if you’re Bob Casey, senator, Democrat from Pennsylvania, or Joe Donnelly, in a state Trump won big, why aren’t you tempted at least to vote –
MR. O’KEEFE: Because – and trust me, they are tempted to help make a deal. They are eager and willing to sit with Republicans and do it. But now, especially that the individual mandate repeal has been added back, they say no deal. No way, because look at the polling just a few weeks ago in Virginia, New Jersey, and all those other local races across the country. What is now the number-one domestic concern? Preserving or messing too much with health care. Democrats know it is a rallying issue for them.
MS. CORDES: And, frankly, they have not been part of these negotiations in a serious way from the very beginning, because Republicans believe that they can pass this tax plan without Democrats. And so, you know, Democrats offered God knows how many amendments over the past week in the Senate Finance Committee. And zero were approved. So there’s no incentive on the Republicans’ part to negotiate with Democrats. And therefore, no incentive for Democrats to support this plan.
MR. COSTA: What about the deficit hawks? You look at Senator Flake, Senator Corker. They’ve broken with President Trump and they don’t like the way this bill adds more than a trillion dollars to the deficit.
MR. PETERS: Senator Lankford of Oklahoma is also concerned about this. That’s exactly right, because they understand the hypocrisy of it. These are guys who ran on a message of tea party fiscal austerity. And now they’re talking about adding trillions and trillions and trillions to the debt by passing this massive tax cut. They understand that it’s bad politics. And not only is it bad politics, but voters don’t seem to understand what they’re getting out of this.
Republicans feel like they’ll be punished if they don’t pass something. So they need to pass something, or so they’ve told themselves. But I’m not sure, Bob, that the benefit of passing anything is really all that great because, as Nancy pointed out, the public really doesn’t feel – they’re not asking for a tax cut. They want their health care. They want a job. They want their country not to be nuked by North Korea. Four percent of people in the last poll that I saw listed tax cuts as their major concern.
MS. CALMES: Well, if I could just add to that, it’s just the – this is a corporate tax cut. That’s what it is. And when you – to your argument at the very outset of this discussion that this is a traditional tax debate, and right up Republicans’ alley, that this was – the fact it’s not what Donald Trump promised. He promised a very populist plan that would – for individuals. And I would just – Jeremy, bringing up the deficit – in 2025, when individual tax cuts expire and people – and all the Republicans are saying: Oh, they’ll be extended. They’re not going to let taxes go up for people. The debt, the federal debt in 2025 will be $25 billion (sic; trillion), even without this tax cut, which is 90 percent of GDP.
MS. CORDES: And of course, the big Democratic concern is that this just phase one. Phase two is next year Republicans say, oh, look at what a hole we’ve now put in the budget with these tax cuts. Now we need to start cutting services. Now we need to start cutting Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. And that’s the fear.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to keep a close eye on all this. We’ll have to see if they actually can get it done by the holiday. I’m not planning any vacation. I don’t know about all of you. (Laughter.)
For the moment, though, let’s turn to another controversy on Capitol Hill. Not as – more controversial than taxes. This is Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. The former Alabama judge continues to deny the allegations against him as more women come forward accusing him of inappropriate sexual advances and misconduct over the past 30 years. During a news conference in Birmingham, Moore accused Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of trying to steal the election from the voters of Alabama. McConnell said he believes Moore’s accusers, and suggested that the Republican Senate candidate would face an ethics probe if he were elected.
Jeremy, I want to pull up something you wrote, because it tells me so much about where we are. And this is in The New York Times. There was a time, you wrote, when the question of whether to disown a candidate accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl was fairly straightforward, but the divisions in the Republican Party run so deep that it’s now become a proxy fight. And that’s what I want to talk about with you, is that this fight – this question about Roy Moore, it has now become something about the base of the party versus McConnell; it’s not so much about Moore.
MR. PETERS: No, it’s not. Roy Moore is just a stand-in character – we’ve seen this happen in race after race – for the anti-establishment. He represents to them a – the base – he represents to the base a big middle finger to Mitch McConnell, and that’s basically what you have here. It’s what Donald Trump was, to a much larger degree. So I think that what Roy Moore can do is get – what he is doing is once again kind of resetting the parameters of civility and lowering the bar in terms of what Americans will expect from the candidates that they elect, and this is really bad. I mean, somebody who is accused – some very credible accusations – of being essentially a sexual predator, and there are enough voters out there in Alabama who are saying, you know what, we hate Republican leadership so much that that’s our guy.
MR. COSTA: And the Democrat, Doug Jones, is gaining.
MS. CORDES: Right. And Republicans on Capitol Hill I’ve spoken to have said that really the only thing they think at this point can get to Moore or to the Republican Party leadership in Alabama, which is still backing him, is if President Trump were really to step in in a meaningful way.
MR. COSTA: He’s not, though. He’s staying out of it.
MS. CORDES: But he is not. I’ve shouted many questions to him this week about whether he believed Moore’s accusers, whether he thought Moore should get out of the race, and I know a lot of other reporters did too, and he just wouldn’t touch it. It was one time he did not want to talk to the microphones.
MR. COSTA: Ed, the challenge for McConnell right now is pretty big. Governor Ivey, a female governor, Republican, of Alabama, says she supports Moore. She’s not going to call some kind of different election or ask Senator Luther Strange to resign. It seems like his hands are tied, McConnell’s hands.
MR. O’KEEFE: They totally are. You either spark this fight that just infuriates the base in Alabama even more to vote for Roy Moore, or – and then he comes to the Senate. And by McConnell’s estimation, he then faces an ethics probe. So, for potentially the next year, you immediately have a freshman senator facing all sorts of salacious allegations that the press and the public will want to hear about.
MR. PETERS: And that the Democrats will run on.
MR. O’KEEFE: And they will run on it. And that’s the other thing, he will immediately become a poster child for the Republican Party, and every other Senate candidate across the country will say, you know, X – Senator X stands with Roy Moore, how can you vote for this party. Flip side, gets even worse – chamber becomes even more narrowly divided if Doug Jones wins, 51-49. It’ll become even more impossible to pass significant legislation. It is not a good time to be Mitch McConnell.
MS. CALMES: Well, you know, the irony here is that Mitch McConnell is the villain in this to the Moore supporters, and yet you mentioned the governor of Alabama.
MR. COSTA: Kay Ivey.
MS. CALMES: She said explicitly that the reason she’s going to support him is – vote for him is because she thinks we need to have a Republican Senate in order to confirm judges and get more Neil Gorsuches on the Court. The irony here is that Neil Gorsuch would not be on the Court but for Mitch McConnell, who held that seat open for an entire year by not giving Barack Obama a vote. And I have to say I’ve continued to this day to be puzzled as to why the conservative right, the Evangelical right, does not give Mitch McConnell more credit.
MR. COSTA: Well, because it’s become this proxy war.
MS. CORDES: He can make – he can make a credible case that he’s a big reason that President Trump got elected, because in the suburbs of Philadelphia and other cities Republicans who are moderates and might not have liked Donald Trump very much went to the polls and voted for him anyway because they said, well, this is about the Supreme Court. There is an opening on the Supreme Court, and that was all engineered by Mitch McConnell.
MR. COSTA: Doug Jones, the Democrat, does he really have a chance?
MR. O’KEEFE: Looks like it. There was a – one of the best we call them live-caller polls done this week by – on behalf of Fox News by a bipartisan firm found him ahead. And also, curiously, if you dive into the numbers, if you look at the favorability ratings for the president, for Jeff Sessions, for Luther Strange – the incumbent who lost the primary – and for former President Barack Obama, of all those guys, who has the best numbers in the state of Alabama right now? Apparently, former President Obama.
MR. PETERS: But doesn’t that make you think that the poll is kind of suspect? I had somebody raise some red flags to me – not that I think by any means – well, I don’t know. Think about it this way. If you are an Alabamian, right now you’re – and you’re inclined to vote for Moore, you’re probably changing your mind day to day. Do I believe The Washington Post? Sorry, Ed. (Laughter.) Do I want –
MS. CORDES: Bernie Bernstein.
MR. PETERS: – to give Mitch McConnell a victory, or do I want to stand by the guy that I know will stand up to the very political system that I feel has disenfranchised me?
MR. COSTA: So it becomes a political calculation more than about the accusations of women who are putting their names on the accusations.
MR. PETERS: Right. I think it’s entirely political.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with this topic, because while the president has avoided publicly addressing the allegations against Moore, he didn’t shy away from commenting on the explosive accusations of sexual harassment against Democratic Senator Al Franken. Radio host and former model Leeann Tweeden says the Minnesota senator and former SNL comedian forcibly kissed her and groped her while the two were part of an overseas USO tour a decade ago. Franken issued an apology that said in part, “I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. What’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it.” Franken has promised to cooperate with an ethics committee investigation. Hours later, President Trump commented on the accusations via Twitter, writing, “The Al Frankenstein picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words.”
Nancy, you’ve been – you’ve been covering this all week. The fallout for Franken? He’s still there, but it shows both parties have been implicated in this national debate/discussion about the important issue of sexual conduct.
MS. CORDES: Absolutely, and senators from both sides were pretty quick to come out and say that he was right to apologize, that it was disgusting what he did, and that they believed his accuser, and that they supported an ethics investigation. I think the question when it comes to his future in the Senate is, A, does anyone else come forward; and, B, what’s his record in the Senate? We called around to more than a dozen of his former staffers, and all of them said that he had always behaved professionally around them, that he was very supportive of women, very appropriate around women, and that they felt that he was a good boss. So, obviously, that’s going to –
MS. CALMES: A number of them put out a public statement.
MR. O’KEEFE: Eight of them, yeah.
MS. CORDES: Exactly. So they’ve come out – you know, they’ve come out in support of him, and so far no one else has made an accusation against him.
MR. COSTA: And it’s gone beyond Franken on the Democratic side. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York told The New York Times, I believe, that now she believes President Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky incident in the late ’90s, and that’s been revived as an issue on the Democratic side.
MS. CALMES: Right, and it was revived a year ago by then-candidate Trump when he was trying to distract from the allegations against him. You know, it’s fair game, but it’s – going back that far, it’s – you know, the one good thing about it is going back that far it shows that this isn’t just a recent phenomenon, so that is good. It’s also not just about politics, because this actually started with Harvey Weinstein and then – you know, and it’s gotten people in sports, in business. I’m sure Nancy and I could share notes. We could tell you this is not just – this is not just in politics, although it is in politics.
MR. COSTA: And it’s pretty bad in politics.
MS. CALMES: It is.
MR. COSTA: We saw in a hearing this week they’ve spent millions on settlements on harassment cases on Capitol Hill.
MS. CALMES: Right. But I would say – and Ed may know better than I – that list of settlements that got a lot of play on social media turns out to be a list of settlements paid out for cases against members of Congress, but it’s not just sex harassment. It’s a variety of cases that include wage and hour disputes, family leave, disability. So we don’t know how much of that is about sexual harassment.
MR. O’KEEFE: I think we need to keep one thing in mind here. This is – it is quite amazing, first of all, how quickly the Senate closed ranks on Franken and said this is unacceptable and you’re going to face an ethics probe. This was sparked because earlier in the week McConnell had said if Roy Moore gets elected to the Senate we will immediately launch an ethics committee investigation, so the precedent had been set. He knew right away if it’s that way for Roy Moore it has to be that way for Al Franken.
But there’s a bigger point I want to make. I want to make this point. Early in the week, McConnell, without fail, without hesitation, made very clear I believe the women. He doesn’t like Roy Moore. He doesn’t want to see Roy Moore in the Senate. He’s doing everything he can to stop him. But I think seeing one of the most senior political leaders in this country very clearly say I believe the accusers was a watershed moment, and something that I think allowed very quickly for what to unfold this week, where just about every other lawmaker said I agree with the –
MR. PETERS: Well, I hate to be the cynic here –
MS. CALMES: Can we – can we not forget, though, that this is about child molestation allegations, too?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, in the case of Roy Moore.
MS. CALMES: Roy Moore, yes.
MR. PETERS: I hate to be the cynic here, but ultimately this is all political.
MR. COSTA: Well, everything is politics. (Laughter.)
MR. PETERS: McConnell would not have come out and –
MR. COSTA: We’re going to get – we’ll get to this on the webcast. (Laughter.) We’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for being here. I appreciate it, as always.
And our conversation will continue online, as I said, on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell why millions of dollars in taxpayer money has been spent on settlements, including harassment suits, against those lawmakers. You can find that later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa, and I wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving.