WASHINGTON — Republican leaders are racing to find support for their tax bill just hours ahead a critical vote, harkening back to the health care bill debacle this summer that left them empty handed.
Despite all that is riding on the tax vote — the legislative legacy of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s prospects for 2018, Republican members tried to downplay any drama Thursday night as leadership punted the crucial vote to Friday.
“We’ll finish tomorrow. It takes a little while to write a bill or come to a conclusion about something this important,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee. “Let’s just put it this way, my flight is late tomorrow afternoon, so, I wasn’t planning to leave tonight.”
The bill received a major boost Friday morning when Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, announced he would back the bill, after he was assured of “significant tax relief for Main Street businesses.”
But tensions were running high in the Senate, where Republican tax writers were reworking the tax bill, trying to find a way to satisfy competing interests and shore up votes.
Behind the scenes, Republican members and aides were fuming at Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, who was demanding last-minute offsets for the GOP tax bill out of fear that it would raise the deficit. Corker’s demands weren’t entirely new, but were crystallized further Thursday afternoon when the Joint Committee on Taxation, the independent tax scorekeeper, announced that even with projected economic growth, the Republican tax bill still would add more than $1 trillion to the deficit over 10 years. Then, Corker learned that a trigger he demanded in the tax bill that would automatically increase taxes if the tax legislation didn’t generate the growth that Republicans anticipated, wouldn’t pass Senate rules and couldn’t be included.
The news led to Corker holding court on the Senate floor on and off for nearly an hour as an amendment vote was held open and dozens of reporters filled the Senate chamber to watch the drama unfold from above.
As CNN reported earlier Thursday, a throng of Republicans encircled Corker and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona as Sen. Pat Toomey, a member on the Senate Finance Committee who has cut deals with Corker on the tax bill already, stood next to Corker, explaining something at length.
At one point, the Senate’s Parliamentarian came over and Corker used his hands to try to convey a point to her for several minutes.
Corker walked across the chamber to speak with Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine. The two men looked over some papers, then walked back over the Republican huddle. Corker asked more questions. At one point Toomey grew audibly frustrated, this time standing face-to-face with the Tennessee Republican.
“Furious,” one aide responded when asked how GOP senators were responding behind closed doors to what Corker did on the floor. “Didn’t need to be done publicly. Didn’t need to cause a scene. We know it’s a problem. Fix it behind closed doors.”
Right now, according to aides, staff and senators are working through several different proposals to try to address Corker’s issues — issues that grew more problematic with the JCT report.
Corker, according to aides, wants even more revenue than the trigger would’ve snapped into effect.
“When the trigger doesn’t work, you have to come up with, I think, $350 billion,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. “That makes everything different. So, we’ll get there, because failure’s not an option.”
There were a few options for getting back the revenue, but none of them would satisfy the entire conference. One option, Texas Sen. John Cornyn floated, would be to gradually raise the corporate tax rate, which Republicans had planned to lower to 20%. That would surely upset House Republicans and Trump who had lobbied aggressively to drop the corporate tax rate to 15%. The other option was to not completely repeal the alternative minimum tax, a levy that is used to ensure wealthy individuals cannot just use tax loopholes to avoid paying taxes all together.
But Republicans were still working on how to put the pieces together.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can afford to lose two Republican senators, but with so many competing concerns, leadership will have to make tough decisions about who to appease based on the math. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona joins Corker in sharing concerns about the deficit and GOP aides say leaders now view Corker and Flake as a package deal. Meaning they either assuage their concerns, or figure out a way not to lose any other senators if they want to pass the bill at all.
Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has tried to lobby leadership to give so-called pass-throughs — businesses that pass profits to owners who pay taxes on the individual side — additional tax breaks. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who was a key “no” vote on health care also must be won over. Collins has asked leadership and the Trump administration to promise her that they will support a package that she says would help stabilize the Obamacare marketplace after Republicans repeal the individual mandate in their tax bill. She has also asked leadership to include a provision that would allow individuals to deduct state and local property taxes up to $10,000.
The predicament leadership faces now isn’t all that unlike the one they found themselves in on health care. If McConnell appeases Johnson and boosts the tax break for pass-throughs (which costs money), he could alienate Corker and Flake who have lobbied to make the tax bill less expensive. If he appeases Collins, he could face problems with the Senate bill when it goes to conference with the House.
Collins acknowledged the struggle ahead.
“I’m going to have more discussions with the House,” Collins told reporters on Thursday evening.