WASHINGTON -- Pushing toward the Republicans' prime goal of tax legislation, the GOP Senate leader and members of the Budget Committee are scrambling to come up with a budget deal to clear the way for the first tax overhaul in three decades.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP members of the Budget Committee are meeting Tuesday with two top Trump administration officials to plot breaking the budget stalemate.
Lack of a budget plan for the 2018 fiscal year starting Oct. 1 is a roadblock to the must-do legislation overhauling the tax system that Republicans and President Donald Trump have made their highest priority. Trump's top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are meeting with McConnell and budget panel members.
Underscoring the president's desire for tax legislation, Trump was hosting a bipartisan group of senators for dinner at the White House on Tuesday, including a trio of moderate Democrats from states Trump won last November and whose votes he'd like to have on a tax bill.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana are to be joined at dinner by Republican Sens. John Thune of North Dakota, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Orrin Hatch of Utah, the White House said.
Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnelly are the only Democratic senators who did not sign a letter addressed to Republican leaders and Trump that said the Democratic caucus would not support a tax overhaul that cuts taxes for the "top 1 percent" or adds to the government's $20 trillion debt.
Heitkamp traveled with Trump aboard Air Force One to an event in her home state last week where he spoke broadly about the tax plan. Trump pitched the senator on the overhaul, calling her a "good woman." Heitkamp said after the event that she needs to see the details first.
Under Washington's complicated ways, passing a congressional budget blueprint is the only way to set in motion a special process for rewriting the tax code. If Congress can pass a budget, Republicans controlling the Senate don't need to worry about a Democratic filibuster blocking any tax bill.
House action has been held up by a battle between moderates and conservatives over whether to pair spending cuts with the filibuster-proof tax measure. Senate action has been on hold while the House struggles.
An impasse could doom the tax overhaul effort.
On the budget panel, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is hoping to limit the deficit cost of the tax effort, while Toomey is on the other end of the spectrum favoring more robust deficit-financed tax cuts. GOP leaders have asked them to try to craft an agreement among the 12 budget panel Republicans. Any Republican defection on the budget plan would deadlock the narrowly divided committee.
"I'm a fiscal hawk, OK? I believe in pro-growth tax reform and I believe that's a mechanism toward lowering deficits," Corker said Monday. "But I'm also someone who wants to be realistic about all of this, and not let this just be party time that takes us no place but massive deficits down the road."
Revamping the nation's tax system and providing relief for the middle class is a Republican mission following the collapse of efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's health care law. Trump has made it a pillar of his push for economic growth.
"The greatest threat to our nation is not North Korea, or Russia, or even ISIS," said Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Senate Budget Committee. "The greatest threat to our nation is our inability to get our fiscal house in order, and it is absurd that Washington continues to turn a blind eye to the dangerous crisis staring us in the face.
"We are now $20 trillion in debt and that number will double in the next 10 years unless we have the courage to put a fiscal straitjacket on Congress," he added. "I have offered several proposals to do just that, and I will continue fighting for much needed spending reforms in Washington."