Speaking at the annual House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Md., Camp said Republicans want to set an agenda that will allow them to be seen as "a party that is really trying to make a difference." During a listening session early January 30, conference members presented their ideas for what should be on the GOP agenda.
"Tax reform was really the most frequently discussed issue, and the reason being that jobs and the economy is still the number one issue," Camp said. "Tax reform is an issue that could begin to grow the economy, create jobs for those that are unemployed, and also, for those that have a job, give them a higher wage."
Asked whether he would still move forward with a comprehensive tax reform bill if the issue does not end up on the Republican agenda at the end of the retreat, Camp said, "I feel good about the way the retreat is going, so I guess I'll answer that question once the retreat has concluded." The retreat ends January 31.
Ways and Means member Aaron Schock, R-Ill., also characterized the conference's interest in tax reform as broad, telling reporters that it "was by and large one of the issues that [members] said, 'This needs be on our agenda that we push this year.'"
Tax reform was among the House Republican priorities for 2013. Leadership set aside the coveted bill number H.R. 1 for Camp's comprehensive reform bill. But Camp's plans to release the bill and have the Ways and Means Committee mark it up last year fell victim to the October government shutdown, concerns about interfering with news surrounding the problems with Affordable Care Act implementation, and hesitation among party leaders who worried rank-and-file Republicans might not coalesce behind legislation they knew little about.
Schock said the timing was not right for reform at the end of 2013, with much of America focused on the troubled ACA rollout. "And to pass any piece of legislation, you've got to have the public behind you, and so we want to make sure that when we roll this out, we can get the public behind us and ultimately pass it," he said.
Catching Up the Conference
It's not yet clear whether Republicans outside the Ways and Means Committee believe 2014 is the right time to commit to tax reform. Although it was mentioned several times during the conference discussion, no decisions have been made, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., said.
"We're going to have more discussions about whether or not we release the plan that Chairman Camp is well known to have been working on for the last couple of years," he said, adding that leadership will have a lot of say in that decision but that they're also taking a lot of input from members.
Asked if there seems to be support among the broader conference for tax reform, McHenry said, "If you're on Ways and Means or you seek to be on Ways and Means, you're absolutely for it. And the rest of us are trying to understand the details of it."
Camp said he plans to continue to talk to his GOP colleagues about his bill. Ways and Means members have said they expect their discussions to get more detailed after the retreat.
Republicans also discussed the debt ceiling during the GOP retreat. Schock said that members have started proposing ideas about what policies they would want to see attached to legislation raising the debt limit -- which Treasury has said will need to be passed by the end of February -- and that one of several ideas raised during that discussion was legislative instructions requiring Congress to act on tax reform.
Both Schock and Camp said the debt limit discussions are still in the preliminary stages and that no decisions have been made.
House Republicans also released draft immigration standards that outline the parameters immigration reform legislation must meet in order to pass through the House. One of the requirements Republicans are seeking is a rigorous program for allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States, which would involve the payment of significant fines and back taxes.
Camp to Seek Waiver?
Camp declined to comment on his personal agenda beyond 2014 when asked whether he intends to seek a waiver to remain chair of Ways and Means in the next Congress. Under House Republican term limits, Camp could not stay atop Ways and Means in 2015 without a waiver.
"In the House, you always have two years, and there are no guarantees after two years," Camp said. Republicans must focus on maintaining a majority in the House, and "when you think about . . . who's going to chair a committee before you win, that's not really the best sequencing of events," he said.
Ways and Means members Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Kevin Brady, R-Texas, have both said they intend to seek the chairmanship after Camp's term is up.
Although Camp has said he is planning to run for reelection, he has not made an official announcement, and tax observers often question why he would want to remain in Congress if he is no longer heading the Ways and Means Committee.
Camp's Senate counterpart, Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., is expected to be confirmed soon as ambassador to China, raising the question of how much cooperation Camp will have from Democrats as he continues to push for tax reform. Camp has worked more closely with Baucus than with Ways and Means ranking member Sander M. Levin, D-Mich. Democrats on Ways and Means have not been involved in the tax reform effort since the bipartisan working groups concluded their research on tax reform options last spring.
Regarding the impact that Baucus's pending departure will have on tax reform, Camp said, "Well obviously he and I have worked closely together to move this issue ahead, and so if I had my preference, he'd be staying." However, Camp said he has met with presumptive incoming Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and is confident the two will have a productive working relationship.
Follow Lindsey McPherson (@lindsemcpherson) on Twitter for real-time updates.
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