As Democrats Push a $3.5 Trillion Bill, a Top Lawmaker Stays Mum on Tax Increases

While polls show widespread voter support for increasing taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations, some Democrats remain wary of political retribution for tax increases that may not ultimately become law — particularly moderates partly reliant on campaign war chests fueled by business interests.

Between the complex process and the public demands of more prominent moderates, including Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Mr. Neal has kept his own policy preferences largely secret.

Pressed repeatedly this summer over his appetite for tax increases, Mr. Neal appeared at times almost haunted by missteps of decades past, recalling when Democrats controlled the House in 1993 and adopted a tax based on the heat content of fuels. The Senate rejected it, and many House Democrats that voted for the tax lost their seats, allowing Republicans to take back the chamber a year later — a painful political lesson that he said he had warned newer lawmakers about.

“My intention is to get this done, and I don’t want them to embrace an exercise that penalizes them with no policy achievement,” he said of his colleagues. “I’m enthusiastic about what the president wants to do, but if you volunteer revenue in Washington now, opposition is instant.”

Liberal Democrats, however, argue that the political winds have shifted, driven in part by decades of economic inequality that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and reports by ProPublica detailing how some of the wealthiest Americans have avoided paying taxes.

“His actual deeds are not conforming with major Democratic policies,” said Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate and former presidential candidate, who has repeatedly crowned Mr. Neal as the most prominent opponent to Mr. Biden’s agenda. “You don’t usually take on the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, but they’re not getting anywhere with him.”

In theory, this moment is why Mr. Neal waited for decades to sit at the helm of the oldest committee in the House, with a sprawling jurisdiction over the tax code, trade and a series of social safety net programs. First elected to Congress in 1988 after comparatively brief stints as a teacher and mayor, he moved to the Ways and Committee in 1993, where he emerged as a genial institutionalist and gained respect from both parties.

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