Senate overhaul inches closer toward passage

Source: Geof Koss, Kellie Lunney and Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporters • Posted: Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Senate Republicans appear to be making headway in their efforts to rewrite the tax code — and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling — after clearing a key committee hurdle yesterday.

The Senate Budget Committee voted 12-11 along party lines to report the chamber’s budget reconciliation package — the vehicle for tax reform — to the floor, with GOP leaders indicating they’ll try to pass it before the end of the week.

The panel’s vote, which came over the howls of protesters chanting “kill the bill, don’t kill us,” came after two undecided GOP members of the committee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Bob Corker of Tennessee, vowed to advance it in exchange for later changes.

Johnson wants to see more generous “pass-through” treatment for small businesses, while Corker wants to see a “trigger” mechanism added to help rein in debt, should the bill fail to live up to economic projections.

Those were among the issues discussed yesterday during President Trump’s visit with Senate Republicans.

Trump, who earlier in the day met separately with Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), also appears to have made headway with senators who have qualms over the inclusion in the tax bill of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Collins — who along with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) helped sink the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare earlier this year — has been on the fence about the tax bill.

She has concerns over the individual mandate repeal and provisions that would slash state and local tax deductions.

But she told reporters yesterday the meeting with Trump left her feeling optimistic about the bill.

“We’re making progress,” Collins said. “I believe that a lot of my concerns, it appears, are going to be addressed, and I’m going to be given the opportunity to offer amendments on the Senate floor on these areas.”

Collins added that lawmakers had reached an agreement to push a health insurance market fix from Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to the floor before the Senate votes on the final compromise version of the tax bill.

That could shore up support for tax reform from Murkowski, who last week expressed support for repealing the Obamacare mandate but did not explicitly say she would back the Senate’s tax bill, despite the ANWR provisions.

Murkowski yesterday told E&E News she was “feeling better” about the legislation. “I’m optimistic about the week, let’s put it that way,” she said ahead of the lunch with Trump.

Getting to 50

Despite committee passage, Senate leaders must still convince 50 of the 52 members of the GOP caucus to support the bill on the floor later this week. With Vice President Mike Pence able to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, they can lose just two votes.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged to reporters yesterday just before the committee vote that it was “a challenging exercise” to address the disparate concerns of different GOP lawmakers to get them on board.

“I’m sitting there with a Rubik’s Cube trying to get to 50,” the Kentucky Republican said during his weekly press conference after the parties’ policy lunches. “We do have a few members who have concerns, and we’re trying to address them.”

All 48 Democrats are expected to vote against the tax bill.

Fifteen moderate Democrats and Maine independent Angus King said yesterday they wanted to enact what they called meaningful tax reform, including lowering the corporate tax rate and providing greater relief to middle- and working-class Americans.

“We want to work with you,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in a direct plea to Republicans. The Democrats also lobbied for more time to negotiate.

“The problem is, the vote this week is being presented as the last chance, the only opportunity, to fix a broken tax code,” said King, referring to Republican leadership’s timetable for getting a tax plan passed before the end of this year. “And that is simply not true,” he added.

Republicans have until the end of fiscal 2018 — Sept. 30, 2018 — to move tax legislation through the reconciliation process, the expedited legislative vehicle that allows the bill to pass by a simple majority vote without the threat of a filibuster.

But the GOP congressional leadership and the White House are eager to get a solid legislative win on the books, particularly before 2018, when the distractions and political vulnerabilities of an election year will complicate policymaking.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) dismissed the notion that lawmakers haven’t had enough time to craft a major tax plan — the first such overhaul to the tax code since 1986.

“This is completely an illusion; we’ve been working on tax reform for years, literally for 30 years,” Cornyn told reporters yesterday afternoon, after Trump’s visit to the Capitol and before the Budget Committee vote.

“We’ve had 70 hearings with the Senate Finance Committee, and of course a lot of working groups and white papers and the like. So, a lot of work has gone into this.”

During the Democratic press conference, Manchin, as well as Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, did not directly answer a question on how they plan to vote on the motion to proceed to a final passage vote on the tax bill when it hits the floor later this week.

The three moderate Democrats are up for re-election in 2018 and represent states Trump easily won in 2016.

“We haven’t seen the final version,” Manchin said.

Heitkamp was a bit more expansive.

“I think it’s unfair to ask that question,” said the former North Dakota tax commissioner. “I’ve been asking all along: What is it, and I still don’t know what it is,” she said of the GOP tax bill. “It’s still a moving target.”

Heitkamp said she was “deeply concerned about a number of provisions, especially the provisions that take the bulk of dollars that we are going to invest in this and front-load them to the richest.” She added the White House had assured the three of them this would not happen.

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who also faces a tough re-election campaign next year, said she has talked to “a number” of Republican colleagues who are “uncomfortable” with both the reconciliation process and the tax bill itself. She did not, however, name any names.

“They are under tremendous political pressure,” said McCaskill. “This is all about them getting a tax bill passed to show they can run government.”