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Powerful Ways and Means chairman Neal to pursue Trump’s tax returns

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WORCESTER — The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said Wednesday he plans to request President Trump’s tax returns, but expects a drawn-out legal battle to result, and thus is choosing his words carefully on the matter.

“I plan to do it,” Mr. Neal said in a visit to the Telegram & Gazette offices. “We are now in the midst of putting together the case. It will be a long and grinding legal case.”

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, responsible under the Constitution for all tax measures, he and the Senate Finance chairman have the ability to request the president’s tax returns, under a 1924 law that came out of the Teapot Dome scandal, Mr. Neal said.

Every president since Gerald Ford has released his tax forms, according to Mr. Neal, but billionaire President Trump has declined. Calls for him to do so have intensified as questions have been raised over Mr. Trump’s alleged financial ties to Russia.

Mr. Neal said he is treading carefully, especially in the wake of the Buzzfeed News report last week that went off like a bombshell — leading to talk of smoking guns and impeachment — but then the report was disputed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office.

Buzzfeed reported last week that President Trump ordered his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s plans to build an office tower in Moscow in 2016. Buzzfeed cited two unidentified law enforcement officials.

But Mr. Mueller issued a statement that Buzzfeed’s report was not accurate. Buzzfeed stands by its story, but the news site’s account of criminal — potentially impeachable — action by the president has been undermined.

All the more reason to choose his words with care, Mr. Neal said.

“The controversy over Buzzfeed last week drove reporting and drove statements that upon reflection probably would have been better considered with a deep breath,” the Springfield Democrat said.

“The jurisdiction and responsibility I have here (are) meant to be handled with great deliberation,” he said.

“There are a handful of jobs in America that can move markets. The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is one of them. My responsibility here is most significant and I intend to approach it based upon that consideration.”

Mr. Neal added: “I hope the president will voluntarily release his tax documents. I don’t think that, given the conversation so far, there is any indication he intends to do that. I also think the public has reasonably come to expect that presidential candidates and aspirants release those documents. It’s likely to end up in a court case.

“We need to approach this gingerly and make sure the rhetoric that is used does not become a footnote to the court case.”

He said: “I’ve been meticulous about my choice of words, for good reason.”

On the partial government shutdown, which was in its 33rd day on Wednesday, Mr. Neal urged a negotiated end to the impasse.

He said bipartisan agreement was reached in December on six of seven spending bills. The one spending bill that is “causing the havoc” is the Homeland Security legislation that includes the $5.7 billion in funding President Trump demands for a Mexican border wall. “For him it’s the bottom line in anything and everything he proposes and suggests,” Mr. Neal said.

Mr. Neal described the Democratic position thus: “Open the government and let’s negotiate that spending bill.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday House Democratic leaders were prepared to offer as much as the $5.7 billion sought by President Trump for border security, but not for a wall, and only if the president agrees to reopen the government.

Mr. Neal said he thought a negotiated middle ground could be reached that provided for new technology and border agents. But he said the president has insisted on the wall pledged at his campaign rallies, for which, Mr. Trump asserted, Mexico would pay.

“He insisted Mexico was going to pay for this wall,” Mr. Neal said. “He continued to adhere to that position, even when Mexico said, ‘We are not going to pay for the wall.’ He stayed with it. I think he’s left himself open to some of the criticism that he has been responsible for the shutdown.”

Mr. Neal said: “There are 800,000 people right now who in many instances are working without pay. Trying to reach the following pay period in our lives is difficult enough. There’s a human cost that should be factored into this dispute.

“I would prefer that we put these matters aside and negotiate them. I’m more than happy to go into a room and negotiate with friend or foe.”

Elected to the House in 1988, Mr. Neal is dean of the New England congressional delegation. The 1st Congressional District, encompassing much of Western Massachusetts, includes the Worcester County towns of Brookfield, Charlton, Dudley, East Brookfield, Southbridge, Sturbridge and Warren.

He visited the Telegram & Gazette on Wednesday to field questions from representatives of the T&G, Coulter Press and the Gardner News and from readers via social media.

Mr. Neal said he has been approached by several prospective Democratic presidential candidates seeking his advice and counsel. He did not disclose the substance of those conversations, or say whether he was leaning toward any particular Democratic candidate in 2020.

But the House veteran indicated the sort of campaign message he’d like to hear — one centered on the old-fashioned and essential work of government, founded on legislative compromise.

“The idea of a campaign is to promote the idea of governance,” Mr. Neal said. “That can be boring. ... Amendments, regular order, maybe big plans that can be sanded around the edges so we can get progress. In a country that’s so divided, I think that some national healing would be a good idea.”

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