WASHINGTON — Republicans are staggering, knocked off kilter by internecine conflict between President Trump and his own party in Congress. Incumbents are under aggressive challenge from conservative activists. Frustrated veteran lawmakers are bailing out.
Given the swirling tumult, one political and legislative reality is suddenly becoming crystal clear: Republicans must deliver a tax cut or face an epic backlash that would pose a significant threat to their governing majority and long-term political health.
After Republicans were unable to fulfill their longstanding promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the tax cut proposal is the only remaining game in town for the struggling majority and its allies on K Street. The inability to enact a tax cut — an idea that nearly all Republicans support in theory while differing on the details — would represent a monumental failure.
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The party would have virtually no argument for re-election in 2018 and Senate and House incumbents would be wide open to challenge from both the right and the left. Big donors who are already sitting on their wallets would have no motivation to open them up. Mr. Trump’s ongoing Twitter feuds have complicated the task, but the Republican Party really has no choice — it must find a way to get a tax cut to the president’s desk.
“We are 10 months into a new president with a city that appears to be dysfunctional,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It is vital that tax reform and economic growth get accomplished by the Congress.”
Like many other advocacy groups, the chamber is putting extra emphasis on how lawmakers vote on tax and economic issues and won’t be inclined to throw its support behind those who don’t share the views of the business lobby.
The first big test for Senate Republicans and their two-seat majority comes next week, when they will try to advance a budget that sets the parameters for a tax bill and establishes a procedural framework to approve it with a simple majority. The House last week narrowly passed its version of a budget, but not before 18 Republicans defected.
A tax overhaul would be nearly impossible to achieve if the budget fails, and Senate leaders don’t have the kind of cushion that their House counterparts had. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, has already indicated that he could oppose the spending plan. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has clashed with the president and helped kill the health care repeal, is also considered a question mark.
That means Republicans cannot spare another vote.
That’s where the increasingly toxic relationship between Mr. Trump and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee comes into play. Mr. Corker is a senior Republican member on the Budget Committee who had already expressed misgivings about the tax plan and the potential for higher federal deficits. Losing his vote could be fatal. But Mr. Corker has very close relationships in the Senate, and many Republicans doubt he would kill the budget or tax plan simply to spite Mr. Trump.
“Defeating the budget is dishing more punishment on your colleagues than it is on the president,” said Neil Bradley, senior vice president at the chamber and a former top Republican official in the House.
Acutely aware of the tightrope he is walking, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, wrote an op-ed for NBC News encouraging Democrats interested in cutting taxes to put aside their issues with the president and join Republicans. It is unlikely to have much effect on the usually party-line budget vote, but Republicans know their job would be much easier if they could peel off just one or two centrist Democrats facing re-election next year.
Any significant rewrite of the tax code is extremely difficult — a political truth underscored by the fact that the last major overhaul was in 1986. Republicans concede that there are plenty of disagreements of the magnitude that could easily scuttle a proposal.
But they argue that Republicans are in such a politically perilous position because of their lack of accomplishment thus far that lawmakers — and the White House — are going to have to overlook their differences and come together on a plan. Otherwise they’ll be staring into the abyss.
“Members on both sides of the Capitol are going to have to be flexible and swallow features that may give them political indigestion in order to get a bill,” said Bob Stevenson, a Republican strategist and former senior Senate aide who was on Capitol Hill for the last tax overhaul. “But as Ben Franklin said, ‘You hang together or hang separately.’”
Mr. Bradley, the chamber official, said he agreed that in a more conventional political environment, existing divisions among Republicans could be sufficient to kill a tax bill. “But there is such a growing realization that failure is not an option that they will be able to overcome a lot of these policy and political conflicts,” he said.
Mr. Bradley notes that Republicans might not be the only ones to take a hit if the tax-cut push collapses. He said the death knell for tax revisions would cause a worrisome domestic economic disruption as well.
As they fret about the outlook for tax cuts, Republicans also understand that eventual success on a tax plan could ease a lot of the criticism they have come under for their legislative failures and demonstrate they have the capacity to run Washington.
“This is not one that can get left on the cutting room floor,” said Josh Holmes, a communications adviser with close ties to Mr. McConnell. “It has become a barometer of whether Republicans can govern under Trump’s leadership.”
At the moment, that’s still an open question. But a Republican failure to succeed on a tax bill would provide an irrefutable answer.