Senate Republicans are planning a vote this week on a sweeping tax bill that would reduce taxes, particularly on corporations and the wealthy, by billions of dollars — but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t appear to have the votes to pass it just yet.
At least 10 GOP senators have expressed some concerns about the current Senate bill — with some worried about the effects on their constituents, some objecting to how the business tax changes are handled, and some who say they don’t want to increase the federal deficit.
Now McConnell is trying to win over these holdouts by modifying the bill to meet their concerns. And though it will be difficult, he could well succeed. The GOP is under enormous pressure from President Donald Trump and from their wealthy donors to pass the measure, to avert ending a year of full Republican control of Washington with no significant legislative accomplishments. (On Monday, Republicans got one bit of good news, as the often-obstinate Sen. Rand Paul announced he’d support the bill.)
The next big step is a procedural vote in the Senate Budget Committee, currently set for Tuesday, that would send the tax bill to the floor later this week. Two GOP senators who’ve expressed concerns about the bill — Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Tennessee’s Bob Corker — sit on the Budget Committee, and if either votes “no,” the bill would be stopped in its tracks for the time being.
If the bill does pass through committee, McConnell would then have to round up 50 votes to get it through the full Senate. Since no Democratic support is expected, that would entail winning 50 of 52 Republicans. Any three defections would likely kill the bill. Here, then, are the key GOP senators who need to be won over.
The retiring deficit hawks with nothing to lose: Bob Corker and Jeff Flake
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona have a few things in common. Both are deficit hawks who have expressed concern that the GOP’s eagerness to cut taxes will lead them to blow up the federal deficit. Both have clashed repeatedly with President Trump this year. And both are retiring in 2018 — which gives their party’s leaders little leverage over them.
The current version of the Senate tax bill would add a little less than $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years. But on paper, it would not add to the deficit in years after that — because many of its tax cuts are set to expire.
Here’s the problem: It’s obvious to everyone that Congress will be under enormous pressure not to let any of the bill’s tax cuts actually expire, but rather to extend them. That’s what’s tended to happen in similar situations in the past, and indeed, White House officials and some conservative Republican senators are openly saying that they hope it would happen again.
But if the bill’s tax cuts won’t actually expire as planned, then they’ll naturally keep on adding to the deficit, as Flake has pointed out. “The savings, the score, it just isn’t valid because you know that they’re not going to follow through,” he told Politico recently. “You can’t assume that we’ll grow a backbone later. If we can’t do it now, then it’s tough to do it later.”
Corker, meanwhile, has said repeatedly in recent months that he won’t support a tax bill that adds even “one penny to the deficit.” However, he has sometimes left a bit of wiggle room there. For instance, he’s suggested that he might accept “a reasonable score on dynamic growth,” meaning that he’s basically willing to assume the tax cuts will generate significant revenue by stimulating economic growth. And one of his staffers told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday that Corker was still involved in talks, seeking to improve the bill, and “hopeful” about it.
The quieter, non-retiring deficit hawks: Jerry Moran, James Lankford, Todd Young
Corker and Flake aren’t alone in their concerns about the tax bill’s impact on the deficit — at least three other GOP senators have expressed similar misgivings.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) has said “we don’t want to increase the debt and deficit as a result of tax cuts.” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) has worried that the bill could “set up additional deficit.” And Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) has said that he doesn’t want to “blow a hole in the budget” for tax cuts.
Now, it’s probably useful to think of these three a bit differently from Flake and Corker. None of these relatively new senators are retiring, so they’ll naturally feel more pressure to support their party’s top legislative priority. Additionally, none of them have much of a history of bucking GOP leadership.
Still, for the time being, they do need to be won over. And on Monday, Lankford floated one possible way that could happen — some sort of trigger rolling back the tax cuts if too much revenue ended up being lost.
The pass-through-ers: Ron Johnson and Steve Daines
Entirely separate from worries about the deficit, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Steve Daines (R-MT) are worried that the tax bill doesn’t cut taxes enough for certain businesses.
Specifically, they’re worried about “pass-throughs” — businesses that aren’t subject to the corporate tax, but rather “pass through” their income to their owners, after which it’s taxed under individual tax rates. (Many pass-throughs are small businesses, but some — like the Trump Organization — are enormous.)
Johnson has been the most outspoken — he said earlier this month that he’d refuse to support the tax bill unless it did more to cut taxes for pass-throughs. Daines has reportedly made similar arguments in private, and the current GOP Senate bill will likely soon be modified to try to address their concerns.
The moderates: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski
Next, there are the perennial tough votes for Republicans to lock down: Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Both famously voted against the Senate’s Obamacare repeal bill earlier this year. And for now, at least, the Senate’s tax bill includes a major health care-related provision: the repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate.
Collins has explicitly said she wants this dropped from the tax bill. “The fact is that if you do pull this piece of the Affordable Care Act out, for some middle-income families, the increased premium is going to cancel out the tax cut that they would get,” she said recently. She’s also criticized the bill’s cuts in the estate tax.
Murkowski, however, has said she’d support getting rid of the individual mandate, though she’s been noncommittal so far on the bill as a whole. One complicating factor in her case is that GOP leaders plan to throw a special sweetener for her into the tax bill. That is, they’ll open up more of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural gas drilling. That hasn’t been enough to get her to publicly support the effort yet, but ANWR drilling is such a longtime legislative priority for Murkowski that many expect she’ll support the bill.
The wild card: John McCain
And then, of course, there’s Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Back in July, he was the decisive vote that tanked his party’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, complaining entirely about the process and lack of bipartisanship — the health bill didn’t proceed through the committee process and through “regular order,” he said.
Now the tax bill has indeed proceeded through the Senate Finance Committee, and McCain released a statement praising that effort. The statement said he hoped that on the Senate floor, “both sides of the aisle” would have “sufficient opportunity to debate the merits of tax reform and offer amendments.”
So far, though, bipartisanship has been nowhere to be found. It remains to be seen, then, whether the tax reform process as a whole will meet with McCain’s approval — or whether he’ll pull off another maverick defection.