WASHINGTON • The rhetoric got sharper between Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and Sen. Claire McCaskill on Thursday, with Hawley accusing McCaskill of waffling on tax reform and McCaskill comparing her potential 2018 election foe to recently defeated Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie.
Their comments came on a day when details of a Senate Republican tax cut package began trickling out, a plan that McCaskill criticized as being written in secret without any input from her or other Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee.
The dustup came from a question to McCaskill about comments that Steve Bannon, a close adviser to President Donald Trump, had made about McCaskill and other Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018. Bannon told Fox News that Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell should resign because McConnell has not forced Democrats such as McCaskill to take difficult votes on dozens of bills passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives.
McCaskill responded that Bannon “has no idea of what he is talking about,” and argued that any Missouri senator inherently takes tough votes because the state is “evenly divided.”
“No matter how you vote, about half the people are mad at you,” McCaskill said.
Without prompting, she segued to Hawley, who has been courted by both Bannon and McConnell, and many establishment Missouri Republicans, to take on McCaskill next year. Hawley is one of four Republicans seeking the GOP Senate nomination.
“I don’t understand whose team Josh Hawley is on,” Mccaskill said. “Is he trying to do what Ed Gillespie did in Virginia? He is trying to say he is on Mitch McConnell’s team and then he is going, ‘Steve Bannon, I am on your team.’
“You cannot be all things to all people,” McCaskill added. “That is the one piece of advice I’d give Josh Hawley. Take a stand.”
Gillespie, a Republican, lost Virginia’s governor’s race Tuesday, and Bannon and Trump blamed the loss on Gillespie’s failure to fully embrace Trump. But Virginia has increasingly moved left in statewide elections, and postelection voting analysis showed that Gillespie’s lost because he got trounced in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C,, where Trump is far less popular than he is in rural and small-town parts of the state.
Hawley spokesman Scott Paradise did not respond to the Gillespie comparison, instead segueing to what he said was McCaskill’s attempt to have it both ways on tax reform by saying she was for reform but bad-mouthing the emerging GOP plans.
Paradise released a statement from Hawley saying that “Campaign Claire needs to take a break and do some work in the Senate. She can’t decide whether she supports Trump’s tax cuts or opposes them. It’s time for her to quit dancing and take a stand.”
McCaskill has said she would support some aspects of the GOP’s plans, including lower corporate and individual tax rates, and overall simplification. But on Thursday, just as details of the Senate version were coming out, she criticized other facets of the blueprint, including the loss of deductions for high medical costs, adoption costs, and interest on student loans, while some benefits for wealthier taxpayers remained.
McCaskill said it was hard to believe the Republicans wanted a bipartisan bill because she and other Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee, which will have to approve it before it moves to the full Senate, had no idea what was in the Senate version.
“If the Senate bill fixes some of the problems that are in the House bill, I am very open to participating in this, and I am open to voting for it,” she said. But not, McCaskill added, if amendments are restricted in the committee and on the floor of the Senate, and the vote becomes a “party-line exercise.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said earlier this week that he believed there would be plenty of time to debate the GOP bill in the Senate and still meet a year-end passage deadline set by Trump.
Members of Congress have been talking for years, and have had numerous hearings, about tax reform, he said.
But Blunt, while not taking a position on the House tax reform package, agreed with McCaskill’s concern about an adoption deduction going away. Blunt, who has an adopted child of his own, said he’d prefer it be changed to a tax credit so that lower-income adopters who pay little or no tax could also benefit from it.