Justice Department special counsel Rober Mueller unveiled indictments Monday
Republicans don't want that investigation to sideline their plans for taxes
News of the first indictments in the investigation by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller captivated Capitol Hill on Monday night, just as Republicans were putting the finishing touches on their long-awaited tax bill.
House Republicans are expected to release their tax bill Wednesday afternoon after months of work, but the already tough job of passing tax reform could get harder if the President – the most popular and visible voice within the GOP – grows distracted by the latest Russia investigation developments and allows it to overshadow the legislative work being done on Capitol Hill.
“It’s too early. It depends on how the President reacts,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, when asked how the latest developments would affect tax reform. “There is no indication that he’s going to go in and fire or pardon at this point.”
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Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, said that while he would be focused on tax reform on the Hill, he did understand how this could become a distraction for the White House.
“The only impact I see is drawing away the power of the bully pulpit. To be be able to actually get out there and talk about the issues,” Lankford said. “But the work in committees, the work on the floor, the work in interaction, none of that changes.”
Republicans across Capitol Hill were working overtime Monday night to try and keep legislative agenda items separate from the drama swirling around special counsel Mueller’s investigation.
In an interview with Wisconsin radio station WTAQ, House Speaker Paul Ryan avoided engaging on questions about the Russia probe.
“I don’t really have anything to add, other than nothing’s going to derail what we’re doing in Congress because we’re working on solving peoples’ problems. And one of the big problems is our economy hasn’t been hitting its potential and people deserve tax breaks, especially middle class taxpayers and businesses who are struggling to compete globally,” Ryan said. “Nothing derails us from focusing on that. That’s basically where a lot of our time and attention is focused on right now.”
But there was no arguing that members were still being drawn into answering questions about the news that three Trump campaign officials had been indicted and one had plead guilty to charges.
During a news conference on Capitol Hill on unrelated judicial nominations, reporters doggedly asked members for answers on the Mueller probe. Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley could be seen ducking out a back door right behind the podium and hitting a row of flags behind the news conference participants just as questioning was beginning on the indictments.
Still, Republicans by and large insisted they would not let the Mueller news overshadow tax week.
“I can’t think of why it should,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi.
Sen. John Thune joked that maybe the Mueller probe could even make it easier for Republicans to pass a major tax reform bill that members openly acknowledge will attract ire from outside interest groups in upcoming weeks.
“We’re just gonna kind of go right on below the radar and pass tax reform and nobody will know what happened,” Thune said, smiling. “No, I think (the Muller probe) probably is going to be a big news story for the rest of the week and a lot of reporting will be around that, but tax reform is a big deal, and you will see the House draft on Wednesday.”
Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, told reporters that the Russia probe would only derail tax reform if members let it.
“The American people know how to multitask; I don’t know why the people in Washington can’t,” Kennedy said. “We can do several things at one time. Look the Russia investigation. Some people say ‘oh it’s been a distraction.’ It’s only a distraction if you allow it to be. I’ve got three things on my mind right now: tax reform, tax reform, and tax reform. We gotta do it by Thanksgiving.”
Meanwhile, members of the House ways and means committee continued hammering out the final details of their bill on Monday afternoon.
Chairman Kevin Brady told reporters that the plan was still to release bill text Wednesday, even as the leadership continued to negotiate on some outstanding pieces.
Over the weekend, Brady announced one major concession on a key tax deduction. There had been ongoing infighting over a provision known as SALT, which allows individuals to deduct their state and local property, income and sales taxes from their federal return. The original framework outlined by House Republicans eradicated the deduction, but the decision had upset Northeast Republicans whose constituents live in high-tax states and benefit from SALT. Brady acknowledged over the weekend that the House Republicans would continue to allow individuals to deduct their property taxes from the federal returns.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California and member of the House ways and means committee, quipped Monday night after a committee meeting that there was no way that tax reform was ever going to break through this week independent of the Mueller probe.
“Tax reform’s so boring … only tax reporters and us pay attention to it,” Nunes said.
CNN’s Ashley Killough, Ted Barrett and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.