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Oregon Sen. Wyden On How Taxing The Rich Could Fund Democrats' Priorities


Calls for the rich to pay their fair share in taxes are echoing from the White House to the red carpet of the Met Gala to the halls of Congress this week. Well, that last one is the natural habitat of Senator Ron Wyden. He's chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and he has ideas for taxing the rich to help pay for his party's $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. But exactly how much to spend and exactly how to pay for it are still being hotly debated, even among Democrats. Senator Wyden joins us now from Capitol Hill. Senator, good to speak with you again.

RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Before we get into the action on the Senate side, let me just quickly get your take on what is underway on the other side of the Capitol - what House Democrats have unveiled - because the deadline they have set themselves to mark up the reconciliation package is today. At least at the start of this week, their plan still would not tax the nation's richest on already accumulated wealth. I'm curious what your take on that is. I gather this is a plan you would not support.

WYDEN: We are continuing discussions. My concern is that nurses and firefighters pay taxes with every single paycheck, and so many billionaires don't take a wage. And so in many instances, they can get out of paying much, if any, income taxes. And then billionaire heirs may never pay taxes on billions, for example, in stock gains. I believe deeply that everybody has to pay their fair share.

KELLY: You have laid out a bunch of ideas for how to pay for this package. Do you actually want all these tax hikes, or are you coming up with more of a menu?

WYDEN: That's exactly what we're doing, so that we will be able to pay for the priorities that Senate Democrats choose.

KELLY: How are you going to get around the boulder that is Joe Manchin, a Democrat of West Virginia? He has been very clear he is not going to support spending anywhere near $3.5 trillion.

WYDEN: Our caucus is very much aware of the challenge. I mean, Donald Trump won West Virginia by something like 40 percentage points. So Senator Manchin has challenges in his state, as all of us do. For example, reordering our priorities to deal with climate - my God, the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, the storms in the south. I've laid out, particularly on energy taxes, that when anyone, whether they're in renewables or fossils or like, reduces their carbon emissions, we want to find a way to encourage that.

KELLY: If I may dig in on one of the items on your menu, it is to create a 2% tax on the amount that publicly traded companies spend on buying back their own stock. This gets a little complicated, but what has not been complicated has been the response from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. One of its top lobbyists says this would hurt the economy. Pat Toomey says the same, your Senate colleague and the top Republican on the banking committee. He says, and I'll quote, "this would hurt economic growth and discourage business from going public."

WYDEN: First of all, these megacorporations always bring out the same argument. They say if they're going to pay their fair share, it's somehow going to hurt working people.

KELLY: OK, but Pat Toomey isn't a mega corporation, and he clearly believes they've got a point.

WYDEN: You mentioned the Chamber of Commerce, and the 2017 tax bill disproportionately gave the breaks to the people at the top. Our data shows that middle-class tax cuts will be far superior for our country and our businesses than the Trump tax bill, where my colleague, Senator Toomey, is proud to say he's been one of the big sponsors.

KELLY: You've talked about things you want this legislation to accomplish - taxing the super rich, prioritizing climate change, prioritizing child care. Can you accomplish that for anything below 3.5 trillion bucks?

WYDEN: I believe when Bernie Sanders and Mark Warner negotiated - and I'm on the Budget Committee, so I saw that - I think that illustrated where we could go as a caucus. I've made it clear we will be ready to pay for the priorities of the caucus - holding down the cost of prescription drugs, fair tax policy - so that we protect our families and give everybody in America the chance to get ahead.

KELLY: Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. He chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Senator, thank you very much.

WYDEN: Thanks for having me, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.