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Cantwell joins Sanders in sparring with GOP over tax plan

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. listens  on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. Cantwell is one of a number of legislators looking to head off a growing national housing crisis. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. Cantwell is one of a number of legislators looking to head off a growing national housing crisis. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

With the Senate expected to vote in the next week or so on a major overhaul of the tax system, Maria Cantwell tag teamed with Bernie Sanders in a verbal wrestling match Tuesday against two Republicans defending the GOP plan.

Answering questions from a studio audience and reporters from CNN, which broadcast the debate live, Cantwell was sharply critical of a provision in the Senate GOP plan that would eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes for taxpayers who itemize.

Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, told an audience member who opposes that change it is his single biggest concern, and one he’s “working hard to improve.”

“He’s not working hard enough,” countered Cantwell, who fought for years to make sales tax deductable for taxpayers in states like Washington that don’t have a state income tax. People have a right to that deduction and anything less is “double taxation,” she added.

Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, argued the current deduction law benefits the wealthy, who are much more likely to itemize than take the standard deduction. If Democrats say they are for the middle and working class, they should support that change and the higher standard deduction, he said.

Not true in Washington, Cantwell shot back, where about 1 million people take advantage of itemizing their local taxes and other deductions to lower their federal tax, and the vast majority make between $50,000 and $500,000.

Eliminating the deductability for state and local taxes could result in local governments lowering those taxes, Cruz said. If not, people could “vote with their feet,” he added, and move to states with lower tax rates, which generally are seeing greater growth than those with higher tax burdens.

“This isn’t the Ted filibuster show,” Cantwell said. Washington has no income tax, and a different tax system than other states, she said.

“People and corporations are coming there in droves. The federal government shouldn’t tell states how to grow.”

Although the debate was billed as a forum on the pending tax bill, it sometimes veered into other topics, like Republicans unsuccessful attempts earlier in the year to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or the 2016 presidential campaign, in which Sanders sought the Democratic nomination and Cruz the Republican nomination.

Sanders repeatedly criticized giving breaks to “millionaires and billionaires” instead of the working class. Cruz managed to slip in his campaign lines about Democrats wanting to raise taxes and spend everyone’s money while Republicans want to cut taxes and let everyone spend their own.

At one point, Cruz asked Cantwell what was the difference between Democrats and a Socialist, which is how Sanders sometimes describes himself.

“We’re a big tent party,” she replied. “You guys keep trying to isolate us, but I’m fine with our big tent.”

Cruz and Sanders argued over whether the Democrats refused to work on tax reform or Republicans shut them out. Sanders said they’d be willing to create a tax plan that would benefit the middle class.

“You want to raise taxes and we want to cut taxes,” Cruz said.

“Open the damn door,” Sanders said.

“The door is open,” Cruz insisted. But when asked if they’d delay a vote to allow for more work on the bill, neither Cruz nor Scott would agree.

A member of the audience, Victor Miller from Snohomish, Washington, said he voted for President Trump and wanted to know what Cantwell would do to work with Trump to help the middle class. She said the current tax reform plan is too focused on corporations, which could get tax breaks without any requirements to raise wages, improve productivity or lower prices. She’d like to see more emphasis on improving job skills, apprentice programs and boosting affordable housing.

When Scott said he’d support incentives for apprenticeships if Cantwell could meet him halfway, she said she’d be willing work with him, and would hope Trump would support it, too. After all, she said, how could he turn down something about apprentices – which was the theme of his reality television show.

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