RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Every Tuesday, Republican senators gather to share some lunch and talk some policy. Today they're going to have a visitor. President Trump will join them for the first time since taking office. He's got taxes on his mind and how to get the support he needs from Congress for his plan to overhaul the tax code. But there are plenty of other issues he's kicked to Congress that lawmakers will also want to bring up - health care, immigration, Iran. NPR's Susan Davis has been keeping track of all of it. She joins us now in the studio. Hi, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Why today is the president making the sojourn over to Capitol Hill?
DAVIS: You know, this is sort of the classic presidential power move - right? - to march down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to send a very clear message on something that matters. And for the president and for the Republican Party, what matters most right now is passing a tax cut legislation before the end of the year.
MARTIN: So this is all about the president's plan to overhaul the tax code. I mean, where does that effort actually stand? Are we going to see a bill soon?
DAVIS: So part of the visit today is because they're very close to releasing the bill. The House this week has to do one final budget vote, and then the next step is they're going to release a tax bill. And I'm told that that could happen as early as next week. And the timeline, which is very ambitious for legislation of this scope, is House Republicans would like to pass that bill by Thanksgiving. The Senate would like to pass it sometime in December. And they would like to get that bill to President Trump's desk by 2018, which we should note is a midterm election year.
MARTIN: And there's not a lot of margin for error here. Republicans cannot afford to lose any votes other than the Republicans who have already expressed their dissent. President Trump is going to need to weigh in personally on this, I imagine. Are they expecting him to?
DAVIS: He will. Although I would say with this issue, with tax cuts, this is a bedrock issue for the Republican Party. This is a lot less complicated than health care in that sense that Republicans never could really identify exactly what they could all agree on on health care. Pretty much every Republican agrees that they support tax cuts. So this is kind of like getting a kid to eat their favorite kind of candy. It shouldn't be that hard. But again, the margin for error is very slim.
The same math that we've talked about a lot over the course of this year exists again. There are 52 Republican senators. They're using a process that lets them pass a tax cut with just 50 votes, which gives them a two-vote margin for error. And I think the action and the difficulty is really focused in the Senate because there's a pretty high degree of confidence that House Republicans will be able to pass a tax cut.
MARTIN: But as you note, this is more the president's wheelhouse than health care was. This is something he personally has talked about for a long time. He wants it to happen, so we'll see how much more engaged he is...
MARTIN: ...Than he was on health care. So he hasn't exactly gone in on a lot of details, but he did tweet something just yesterday, the president. He said there will be no change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle-class tax break that works, and it stays. So then that raised all these questions. I mean, was this something Republicans even...
MARTIN: Were they even talking about this?
DAVIS: Well, we haven't seen the tax bill, so we can't say for sure at what point this may or may not have been in there. But when you start to write a tax bill, when you want to cut taxes, you've got to find ways to pay for it. And perhaps at some point, the idea that you could affect 401(k) tax-deferred income as a way to help pay for it could have been on the table.
I think the president making clear that that kind of thing isn't going to be in the tax bill also kind of gives him an opportunity on the early end to look like he's really looking out for the middle class and to look like this is going to be a tax bill that benefits middle-class voters. That has been a criticism of what we've heard about the bill so far that Republicans are sensitive to - that it's too skewed towards corporations and the wealthy and not enough towards the middle class. And I think Republicans are trying to shift that conversation so people think that they're going to really benefit from this.
MARTIN: So he's trying to seize a victory where there might not have been a battle, right.
DAVIS: And sensitive to the fact that a lot of the voters that sent the president to the White House are working-class voters who were given promises that he was going to make their lives better. And a middle-class tax cut, Republicans believe, is one way to do that.
MARTIN: So this is going to be an interesting lunch - right? - because there are going to be a lot of people there who have different kinds of relationships with the president, among them some pretty harsh critics. Bob Corker we've been hearing from a lot, who recently (laughter) called the White House - I laugh because this was a pretty surprising comment. He called it an adult day care center. John McCain has been landing some jabs recently. He went on "The View" yesterday where his daughter Meghan McCain is the new host.
He was asked - and this did feel like kind of a setup. But he was asked if he was scared of the president. And then the senator just, like, laughed for a long period of time. What is going to come out of such a potentially awkward meeting?
DAVIS: Well, you know, the president's coming up with a message. But these closed-door meetings are also an opportunity for senators to push the president on issues. And alongside those senators you've mentioned, you also have senators like Lamar Alexander, who has co-authored a bipartisan health care bill. He might want to push the president to support that, who's been very cautious. You also just have sort of the odd politics of this moment where you do have a president who is at odds with so many of his own members of his own party.
DAVIS: And even think about the politics we talked about of the 2018 midterms. The president hasn't even committed to supporting all of these senators in their primaries and in their re-elections, you know, senators like Jeff Flake of Arizona.
MARTIN: Not a lot of trust there.
DAVIS: Yeah, so there's political odds, and there's policy odds. And it should make for one very interesting lunch.
MARTIN: NPR's Susan Davis. Thanks so much, Sue.
DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.