Ever see a shot-down trial balloon fly again? House Ways and Means chair Kevin Brady has attempted to refill the one floated at the end of last week on the revenue enhancer that the GOP’s big tax-reform requires to qualify under reconciliation. Even though Donald Trump took to Twitter to reassure voters that their 401(k) plans would not get touched — calling it a “popular middle class tax break that works” — Brady’s still looking at it as an option, according to the Washington Post:

Speaking at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, declined to rule out changes when asked whether Trump’s position had killed the idea.

“We think in tax reform we can create incentives for Americans to save more and save sooner which can help,” Brady said. “We are exploring a number of ideas in those areas.”

While he did not offer details, Brady said there were “continuing discussions with the president” on the topic.

That suggests something different than the initial trial balloon late last week. Republicans discussed capping pre-tax contributions at $200 a month, or $2400 a year, down from $24,000 for over-50 workers and $18,000 for others. Brady’s remarks sound like the tinkering might involve redirecting contributions in other ways, but it’s unclear why they’d tinker with it at all.

Remember that the 401(k) discussion came up as a revenue enhancer. In order to qualify under reconciliation and avoid the necessity of getting Senate Democrats’ votes, Republicans have to find ways to make tax reform impact deficits positively. It has to bring in more (or reduces costs enough) than it reduces projected revenues in the status quo. Lowering the caps on contributions means more taxable income, and more revenue. If 401(k) changes don’t raise revenues, there’s no reason at all to make them.

This isn’t the only area of confusion in the GOP’s tax reform efforts. In fact, no one seems clear at all what the GOP actually wants, or if Brady has a plan at all:

Again and again on Wednesday, Brady said the most pressing decisions have not been reached.

For example, he said he hasn’t decided what income levels would merit certain tax rates. He said he hasn’t decided how many tax deductions to eliminate to partially offset the lower rates. He said he hasn’t decided whether to impose a top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans. He said he hasn’t decided whether the tax cuts would be retroactive to income earned in 2017. …

This political cautiousness is infuriating some Republicans, who feel that too many details are being kept secret too late in the process.

If this sound familiar, it should — and it should set off alarm bells among Republicans. As I write in my column at The Week, Republicans seem to be following the same ad-hoc playbook that worked out so well for ObamaCare repeal:

The White House released a framework for tax reform in late September, coincidentally about the same time as the final attempt to repeal ObamaCare went down to defeat. It didn’t contain many specifics, and even those it did contain later got changed. For instance, the plan called for three brackets for personal income taxes, with suggested levels at 12 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent. Last week, however, House Speaker Paul Ryan indicated that a fourth would be added for high-income earners, and Trump said he’d go further if necessary to ensure lower taxes for the middle class. “I want them to get really a lot,” he said. “Then I’m going to do a fifth bracket, which will give them more.” …

In other words, the Republican tax reform plan doesn’t exist. Even in conceptual form, the general proposal has so many moving parts that it will almost certainly lose GOP votes in whatever final form it does take, especially given the trade-offs necessary to qualify for reconciliation. The specifics will have to get drafted in a hurry by a handful of House and Senate Republicans and then rushed through quickly to prevent any agreement from falling apart. And in case you forgot, two key Republican senators spent the day yesterday publicly berating the president.

If that all sounds familiar, it should. Republicans have promised tax reform for two years on the campaign trail. Clearly they didn’t do any better preparing to meet that pledge than they did with ObamaCare — and it shows.

At an event in the Twin Cities last night, my friend and Salem colleague Larry Elder said he remained confident that Republicans will pass a tax reform package. They have no choice, Larry argued, if they expect to hold their majorities in Congress. Let’s hope the Sage of South Central is correct, but so far, he’s a lot more sanguine about this than me.