Just as they did with health care, Republicans have an excellent chance to enact something bold and meaningful that will radically change the American tax system simply by virtue of controlling both the White House and Congress at the same time. Unfortunately, with taxes – as with health care – it’s not at all clear whether Republican leadership is more interested in actually accomplishing something, or just being able to say they accomplished something in time to campaign on it.

The question for them, and the country, is whether they consider tax reform to be a real policy agenda, or just another catchphrase intended to capture the imagination of their base, like “repeal and replace.”

If it’s the former, then they can cram virtually anything they like into a tax reform bill, get it passed, and call it a win. It doesn’t really matter what’s in it – how a large a tax cut or increase it is or for whom, whether or not it’s permanent or how it affects the deficit. In this equation, it only matters that they pass something – anything, really – centered on taxes. That will allow them to take credit for their accomplishment, and will allow the White House to truthfully claim that they managed to actually get something done for a change.

This is essentially the stage of the debate we now find ourselves in, with leadership in both the House and the Senate throwing everything at the wall in an attempt to see what sticks. That’s why Republicans in the House were so pleased to simply pass a tax bill this month, even though it garnered no bipartisan support and seems virtually dead on arrival in the Senate: It was, at least, the beginning of the legislative process.

This is somewhat different from the process that Republicans used to attempt to repeal Obamacare earlier this year.

In late summer, the Senate rejected the House version of a “repeal-and-replace” plan, and only then began work in earnest on their own legislation. When that bill didn’t get enough support in the Senate to pass, the effort was essentially dead. In part, the Senate rejected the House bill because they feared that the House might simply pass anything they passed, avoiding what is known as a conference committee – the process used to resolve differences between each chamber’s version of a bill.

This time, by introducing their own tax bill at roughly the same time as the House, Senate leadership is making it clear that they expect a conference committee. The problem with that approach is that right now, the bill they’ve introduced might not be able to get through the Senate on a party-line vote. They’ve already lost one member of their caucus in Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who wants to do more to help businesses; after they included repealing the individual mandate, Sen. Susan Collins began to express more skepticism about the bill as well.

Collins is likely right that including any repeal of Obamacare in tax legislation is unwise. It not only risks the support of moderate Republicans like her, but makes the likelihood of attracting any bipartisan support virtually nil, just as it was on repeal and replace. Currently, though it seems unlikely, that’s not the case: there are various elements of the tax proposal that have drawn interest from some Senate Democrats. If leadership chooses to include those provisions, and drop the more controversial and partisan ideas, they may be able to garner votes from red-state Democrats up for re-election next year – or at least keep all Republicans on board.

Right now, both the Senate bill and the House bill have a few good ideas and some truly terrible ones. Fortunately, neither piece of legislation has much chance of becoming law as written – they’re just the first step in the journey. Hopefully, with a few tweaks to the Senate bill, leadership in that chamber might be able to get something passed in short order.

The truth is that America does need tax reform. We need a tax code that does more to help the middle class and small businesses, and is easier for all of us to understand. It would be nice to see both sides of the aisle hold their fire and work on tax reform for the good of the country, rather than turning each other into talk-show cannon fodder. This is far too important an issue to be drowned in the usual deluge of partisan sniping.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: @jimfossel