Senate Republicans have entered a frantic rush to put a tax overhaul on the Senate floor in the next few days. Republicans are readying a bevy of last-minute changes that could redirect billions of dollars in the US economy over the next decade, changes that senators hadn’t even seen in writing mere hours before they voted to start debate on the tax bill.
But the bill has cleared its first important hurdle. The Senate voted on Wednesday evening, 52 to 48, to start debate on the Republican tax plan.
But that’s really just the opening act. Over the next two days, the fate of the nation’s tax code will be adjudicated on the Senate floor.
The centerpiece of the Republican tax plan is a huge corporate tax cut, at a time when most Americans think businesses should be taxed more, not less. It also slashes taxes on “pass-through” businesses disproportionately used by rich people (like President Trump) to lower their tax burden. The top tax rate for the richest Americans would also be cut, and the estate tax for wealthy inheritances would be rolled back.
More changes could be made on the Senate floor, where a process colloquially called “vote-a-rama” could force some tough votes for lawmakers on both sides and, maybe, change the substance of the final plan that the Senate passes. How this all shakes out could determine whether — and, more importantly, how — Republicans overhaul the nation’s tax code for the next generation.
The path forward is complex. Here’s what happens next.
1) McConnell technically made a motion to start debate on the House tax bill. That step — known as the motion to proceed — required 51 votes.
Even some skeptics of the tax bill like Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) voted in favor of opening the debate. It would have been a shock if the Senate failed to even start debate on the bill.
2) The Senate would debate the House legislation on the floor for 20 hours, with that time divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. That’s 20 hours of debate time, not real time, so the debate could last a couple of days.
3) At the end of the debate, there would be a vote-a-rama, during which senators can offer an unlimited number of amendments to the bill. Amendments that are considered “germane” to the tax legislation need 51 votes to be added to the bill.
4) At some point, either before or after the vote-a-rama, McConnell would offer the Senate bill as a substitute for the House bill. The timing would depend on whether McConnell wants the amendments brought up during vote-a-rama to be added to the final bill. This will be a key decision: If McConnell waits until the end to introduce his substitute, then none of the amendments that were added during vote-a-rama will actually be part of the final legislation.
The “when” of the substitution is crucial: If, purely hypotethically, a proposal by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) is approved and added to the House bill but the Senate bill is substituted later, that policy change would not actually be in the bill that comes up for final passage.
5) The Senate would take a final vote on passage of the amended Senate bill. That would require 51 votes. Just because the tax bill got a majority to start debate doesn’t mean it will get the votes to pass. The health care debate was started, but then every bill that Republicans put forward failed to get 51 votes. Several Republicans — Corker, Flake, John McCain, Susan Collins — are thought to be on the fence.
Vice President Mike Pence could break a 50-50 tie.
6) If the Senate passes the bill, the House could either take it up and pass it as is or the two chambers could enter into conference negotiations to produce a new plan.
Both the Senate and House would need to pass the conference bill, which requires 50 votes again in the Senate and a bare majority, 218 members, in the House.
7) Once both chambers pass the tax bill, President Trump would sign it into law.