(Adds interview details, background)
WASHINGTON, Aug 25 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump will begin a major push next week to convince the public of the need for tax reform, shifting his focus to fiscal policy in an effort to win a big legislative victory by the end of the year, The Financial Times reported on Friday.
Trump would begin the effort next Wednesday with a speech in Missouri, the first in a series of addresses to generate public support on the issue, Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, told the newspaper.
“We are completely engaged in tax reform,” Cohn told the FT in an interview. “Starting next week the president’s agenda and calendar is going to revolve around tax reform. He will start being on the road making major addresses justifying the reasoning for tax reform.”
Although Cohn stressed that tax reform would be front and center of Trump’s agenda, the Republican-controlled Congress faces two other pressing issues when it returns from its August recess on Sept. 5.
Lawmakers need to approve an increase in the U.S. debt ceiling to allow the federal government to keep borrowing money and paying its bills, including its debt obliterations. Separately they need to pass at least stop-gap spending measures to keep the government operating. Deadlines on both issues will loom within weeks after lawmakers return from their break.
Asked by the FT whether the debate over the debt ceiling could derail the tax reform drive, Cohn said that “at the end of the day, Congress has to increase the debt ceiling - that is just the reality.” He added that this would be in September, before tax reform legislation.
“The key point is this: tax reform is the White House’s number one focus right now,” he added.
Cohn said White House officials had been working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and other leading congressional Republicans on “an outline and skeleton” for the tax reform proposal, “and we have a good skeleton that we have agreed to.”
The details Cohn discussed were similar to those mentioned by Ryan at a meeting with Boeing employees on Thursday.
Asked whether the focus on tax reform had been complicated by Twitter attacks by the Republican president on McConnell and Ryan, Cohn said the White House officials worked well with the two “and we have made a massive amount of progress” on taxes.
Cohn said the House Ways and Means Committee would put more “flesh and bone” on the tax reform plan when lawmakers return from the recess. He said he believed a bill could pass tax committees in both chambers and be passed by both the House and Senate by the end of 2017.
In the case of individual taxpayers, Cohn said the president’s reform plan would protect the three big deductions that people can claim on taxes: for home mortgages, charitable giving and retirement savings.
Beyond that, it would increase the caps for the standard deduction while eliminating most other personal deductions, Cohn said. The plan also aims to get rid of taxes on estates left when people die.
Cohn said for businesses, the administration is proposing to lower corporate tax rates, while eliminating many of the deductions that businesses use to reduce the amount of tax they must pay.
Asked whether the corporate tax rate could be cut to 15 percent as previously suggested by Trump, Cohn said, “I would like to get the tax rate as low as possible so that businesses want to create jobs here.”
He said the administration would propose going to a system where American companies would not have to pay additional tax when they bring profits earned overseas back to the United States.
“Today, they often have to pay extra taxes for bringing profits back to the U.S.,” Cohn said. “Our current system basically creates a penalty for headquartering in the U.S.”
He said the administration did envision a one-time low tax rate on all overseas profits.
Reporting by David Alexander and Makini Brice; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry