House Ways and Means Committee top Democrat Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts criticizes the Republican tax plan during a news conference in the Rayburn Room in November 2017. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Springfield, Massachusetts CNN  — 

His name is Rep. Richard Neal and he’s about to become a household name.

After nearly a decade in the minority, Democrats will return to Washington in January ready to unleash the full weight of their oversight capabilities on the Trump administration, and Neal will be smack dab in the middle of the action.

At 69, the soft-spoken former mayor from Springfield, Massachusetts, who has built a reputation as a business-friendly Democrat, wonk and behind-the-scenes negotiator will be cast into one of the most visible and partisan roles on Capitol Hill: the man who will ask for President Donald Trump’s long-awaited tax returns.

Expected to take the helm of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, Neal would be one of only two members in Congress who can request the returns and the only Democrat, making him a central figure in the party’s pursuit to hold Trump’s administration and the President himself accountable.

But Neal told CNN in an interview Wednesday that he still hopes Trump will release his returns voluntarily, even though he suspects it will prompt a legal fight.

“I think the President has an opportunity here to defuse this and just release the forms as every other candidate for President has done,” Neal said. “Even if the request is made, I don’t expect that afternoon we’re going to see those tax forms. So I think we’ll do what we have to do, and then see where the road takes us and the path that we travel.”

Trump’s refusal to disclose his personal tax records is unprecedented in the modern presidency, a point Democrats have been making since the throes of the 2016 election.

But still, it is an unusual job for a man who colleagues say would rather be seeped in the intricacies of tax reform or crafting an agreement with Trump on infrastructure pay-fors than partisan flame-throwing.

That is part of the reason Democratic leaders believe Neal is the man for the job.

“He listens to others, which is a very important skill. He is not perceived as a ranter and raver,” said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. “He is low key. But, anybody who mistakes his being low key for not being tough as they come, will make a huge mistake.”

How it is going to work

Once Democrats assume the majority in January, Neal says he will plan to request Trump’s returns from the President. The timeline, he says, is still uncertain as there are careful legal considerations he and Democrats will have to work through. His hope: That Trump will hand the returns without a fight and his committee can then move on to other work like infrastructure, taxes and protecting protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

But, Trump hasn’t been forthcoming about his plans.

“I don’t care. They can do whatever they want, and I can do whatever I want,” Trump said Monday on the campaign trail about Democrats asking for his tax records.

Trump said Wednesday that he would consider disclosing his tax returns if he wasn’t under audit.

“But when you’re under audit, and I’m under very continuous audit because there are so many companies and it is a very big company, far more than you would even understand …” Trump said during a White House press conference. “But if I were finished with the audit, I would have an open mind, I would say that. But I don’t want to do it during the audit.”

Technically, Democrats argue, it isn’t up to the President to decide.

If Trump won’t hand over his returns voluntarily, Neal will turn to an obscure section of IRS code that he says gives Democrats the legal authority to obtain the records they want in the majority.

Under that statute, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee Chairman can request those tax returns. Then, if the chairmen of Ways and Means or Senate Finance wanted to make them public, the committee would have to vote.

But, using an obscure IRS code has political risks for Democrats and could force Democrats into a protracted legal battle with the President and his treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin.

In an interview with The New York Times in October, Mnuchin wouldn’t reveal how the administration would handle Neal’s request, saying that his team hadn’t studied the full legality of it.

“The first issue is they would have to win the House, which they haven’t done yet,” Mnuchin told the Times before the election. “If they win the House and there is a request, we will work with our general counsel and the IRS general counsel on any requests.”

Mnuchin will also have to weigh the political costs of turning over the returns, realizing that handing them over to Democrats could be seen in Trump’s eyes as the ultimate betrayal.

Neal isn’t the only Democrat looking for the tax returns. Texas Democrat Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a senior member of the tax-writing committee, said his party would “immediately” request the President’s tax returns under a law in the tax code that allows lawmakers to review documents.

“I’m confident that this President who’s had no oversight, only overlook, will feel that he’s above the law on this also,” Doggett said on a conference call with reporters. “While we may not get those returns immediately, we ought to. And we ought to be asking for them immediately, aware that the President will be resistant to oversight.”

For Neal, asking for Trump’s tax returns are important, but he wants to ensure that he is able to ask for them and not let the dispute define his committee over the next two years.

“I don’t think that the opening position of the most prominent committee in Congress ought to be weighed down by one dispute that we have,” Neal said.

An unlikely soldier

Neal got his start in politics in the early 1970s working in city government, first as the assistant to the mayor of Springfield and then as a member of the City Council. One of his most prized accomplishments over the years was rebuilding the train and bus station in downtown Springfield, a testament to the kind of old-school lawmaker colleagues say prizes the institution, deal-making and sending money back home, over the partisan rancor of the day.

Neal’s partial to earmarks, is a prolific fundraiser for Democrats and is often seen as someone who can work closely with members on the other side of the aisle.

Raymond La Raja, a professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told CNN that chairing Ways and Means is a job a pragmatist like Neal is prepared for even if he may not be the vision of the attack dog the Democratic base may have had in mind.

“Congressman Neal is a throwback to the days when members felt a loyalty to the institution of Congress,” La Raja said. “That means they cared about how it worked and the importance of relationships. This style puts him at odds with many in both parties but it is essential to have leaders who support Congress as a Member, not as a partisan. The risk is that Democratic partisans will see him as too soft on Trump and the Republicans. He has spine but his style is not the way the most passionate in his party would like to see him use his gavel.”

Remarkably little nationally has been written about the 15-term congressman, a result colleagues say of the fact Neal has focused more on getting work done then appearing on camera to talk about it.

“He is not flashy so he doesn’t get a lot of attention,” Former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank told CNN. “He is thoughtful, intelligent, very serious … he is as thoughtful of a member of Congress as I served with.”

In 2017 as the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Neal got to test drive the role of Democratic bulldog. He became the counterweight to the GOP’s tax bill, railing against legislation on the House floor and shepherding Democrats through a marathon markup in the committee.

“This is not about simplification. … It was going to be on a postcard, you are going to need to carry a billboard around with you to understand what is in this actual bill,” Neal declared on the House floor just hours before the vote, referencing Republican promises to be able to file federal income taxes on a form the size of a postcard.

In upcoming months, Neal says he won’t let the job of asking for the tax returns get in the way of other legislation he wants to pursue.

“If there’s a protracted legal fight, which I suspect that that may well end up … then we need to get on to other issues,” Neal said.

This story has been updated.

CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Donna Borak, Maegan Vazquez, Greg Wallace and Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.