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WATCH: Democrats turn focus to presidential tax returns in House subcommittee hearing

WASHINGTON — The new Democratic-controlled House is looking at proposals to compel presidents and presidential candidates to make public years of their tax returns. But the burning question is what Democrats might do more immediately to get such files from President Donald Trump.

That goal has been high on their list of priorities since they won control of the House in November’s midterm elections, but asking for Trump’s returns is likely to set off a huge legal battle with his administration.

The Democrats tried and failed several times to obtain Trump’s returns as the minority party in Congress. Their newly energized leftward wing is pushing the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., to set the quest in motion, and fast. The organization funded by billionaire investor and Democratic activist Tom Steyer has run a TV ad in Neal’s home district calling on him to subpoena Trump’s tax records, as a prelude to starting impeachment proceedings.

The issue comes to the fore in a hearing Thursday by the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee.

“I think overwhelmingly the public wants to see the president’s tax returns. They want to know the truth, they want to know the facts,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader, said at a news conference Thursday. But she warned that the move cannot be made in haste.

“As I’ve said, we’re in our first month. … In terms of the tax returns, it’s not just a question of sending a letter; you have to do it in a very careful way. And the chairman of the committee will be doing that.”

Thursday’s hearing comes two days after Trump faced a divided Congress in his State of the Union address, imploring the Democrats to step away from “ridiculous partisan investigations” as they move forward with oversight of his administration and his finances.

The subcommittee is examining a proposal that would require all presidents, vice presidents and candidates for those offices to make public 10 years of tax returns. It’s part of House Democrats’ comprehensive elections and ethics reform package — their first major bill for the new Congress this year. The legislation also would make it easier for citizens to register and vote, and ban executive-branch officials from lobbying their old agency for two years after they leave government.

While the ethics bill includes a range of reforms, some Democrats have made clear that one of their chief targets is Trump. Some elements of the bill have bipartisan support, but the overall package is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The oversight hearing, led by subcommittee chair Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., will also examine current tax law regarding presidents’ tax returns.

By law, as chair of the tax-writing House panel, Neal can make a written request for any tax returns to the Treasury secretary, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service. The law says the Treasury chief “shall furnish” the requested information to the members of the Ways and Means Committee for them to examine behind closed doors.

Yet there’s no guarantee that the administration will comply. That sets up the possibility of a legal battle that could take years to resolve, possibly stretching beyond the 2020 presidential election.

Neal has said little on the subject, focusing his early committee efforts on policy issues such as health insurance, retirement security and prescription drug prices.

“I think we will,” Neal said when asked whether the panel under his control would ask for the documents. If the administration then mounted a legal challenge, he added, “I assume that there would be a court case that would go on for a period of time.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “will review any request with the Treasury general counsel for legality,” the department has said. Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani has suggested the Democrats could have a hard time proving their demand was intended for pursuing legitimate congressional oversight and was not a political scavenger hunt.

Trump broke with decades of tradition for presidential candidates by refusing to release his income tax filings during his 2016 campaign. He has said he won’t release them because he is being audited, even though IRS officials have said taxpayers under audit are free to release their returns. Trump claimed at a news conference following the November elections that the filings are too complex for people to understand.

Democrats want to dive in and explore numerous questions about Trump’s personal financial webs. Among them: whether there are conflicts of interest between his companies and his presidential actions, what are the sources of his income and to whom he might be beholden as a result, whether he’s properly paid taxes and whether he benefited from the sweeping Republican-written tax law enacted in late 2017.