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Koch urgency: Conservative network fears closing window

| Monday, June 26, 2017, 7:54 a.m.
David Koch speaks in Orlando, Fla. The Koch brothers and their chief lieutenants are warning of a rapidly shrinking window to push their agenda through Congress.
David Koch speaks in Orlando, Fla. The Koch brothers and their chief lieutenants are warning of a rapidly shrinking window to push their agenda through Congress.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The urgency was easy to find inside the private receptions and closed-door briefings at the Koch brothers' donor retreat in Colorado Springs, where the billionaire conservatives and their chief lieutenants warned this weekend of a rapidly shrinking window to push their agenda through Congress.

No agenda items mattered more to the conservative Koch network than the GOP's promise to overhaul the nation's tax code and repeal and replace President Barack Obama's health care law. At the moment, however, both are bogged down by GOP infighting that jeopardizes their fate.

“There is urgency,” said Tim Phillips, who leads the network's political arm, Americans for Prosperity. “We believe we have a window of about 12 months to get as much of it accomplished as possible before the 2018 elections grind policy to a halt.”

The window for action may be even smaller, some Koch allies warned at a weekend donor retreat that drew roughly 400 participants to the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs' broad policy and political network. There were also at least 18 elected officials on hand. Some hosted private policy discussions with donors while others simply mingled.

In between meetings, Rep. Dave Brat, R-Virginia, predicted dire consequences in next year's midterm elections should his party fail to deliver on its repeated promises.

“If we don't get health care, none of us are coming back,” he said in a brief interview. “We said for seven years you're gonna repeal Obamacare. It's nowhere near repealed.”

It's the same for tax reform, Brat said: “We don't get taxes through, we're all going home. Pack the bags.”

There was a sense of deep frustration from conservative officials and donors alike in some cases, who decried the pace of progress in Washington with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade.

Texas-based donor Doug Deason has already informed a handful of congressional Republicans that the “Dallas piggy bank” is closed until he sees more action. He said he was recently approached by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, about hosting a fundraiser.

“I said, ‘No I'm not going to because we're closing the checkbook until you get some things done,'” Deason said, noting he's encouraged nearly two dozen major Texas donors to follow his lead.

“Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed,” Deason continued. “Get it done and we'll open it back up.”

While some donors threatened to withhold campaign cash, Koch's team outlined a broader strategy to help shape the debate.

Already, Americans For Prosperity claims a paid staff of more than 400 full-time activists in 36 states. Koch officials said that the network's midterm budget for policy and politics is between $300 million and $400 million.

The group is actively lobbying Senate Republicans to change their current health care proposal, which it views as insufficiently conservative.

“We are not committed to the Senate bill in its current form, but there is still time to make changes and we're actively working to improve it,” Phillips said.

At the same time, Koch's allies are aggressively pushing forward on the taxes. The network is running what it describes as “a first wave” of digital ads calling on more than 50 House and Senate Republicans in both parties to overhaul the nation's tax code. Later in the summer, Philips said, Americans for Prosperity will begin hosting rallies and other events to generate momentum for a tax overhaul in all 36 states where they have full-time operations.

Sean Lansing, AFP's chief operating officer, warned that the Republican Party's House majority could be in jeopardy if the Republican-led Congress doesn't follow through.

“If they don't make good on these promises...there are going to be consequences, and quite frankly there should be,” Lansing said.

Republicans would have to lose 24 seats to lose the House majority. And in a handful of recent special elections, the GOP has prevailed, despite President Donald Trump's low approval ratings.

Another Koch donor, Chris Wright, of Colorado, says Republicans likely have a 10-month window before any chance of major policy action is suffocated by next year's midterms.

“If we don't get anything done by then, the elections probably don't go very well,” Wright said. “They may not go well anyway.”

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