GOP Tax Bill on Cusp of Passage After Senate Vote
After Republicans failed -- in dramatic fashion -- to repeal the Affordable Care Act over the summer, some lawmakers fretted about the status of their nascent tax overhaul, their re-election prospects and their overall ability to govern.
Now, with the tax bill on the verge of heading to President Trump’s desk, GOP lawmakers are touting it as a major legislative victory and a signature issue to run on in 2018.
“I thought it was really important for the economy, and really important for the performance record of this Congress -- and in that order,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of party leadership, told RealClearPolitics. “I think the real reason to pass it is the significant economic benefit to families and to the ability to compete. But I think without any question it’ll make a difference in how Congress is evaluated.”
The Senate passed the bill early Wednesday morning by a party-line vote of 51-48 hours after the House passed it, 227-203, with only 12 Republicans voting no and no Democrats voting yes.
The House will have to re-vote Wednesday, however, after several minor provisions were removed from the bill because they didn’t meet strict rules for the budget procedure Republicans are using to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. The changes are unlikely to alter the vote tally in the House.
The tax measure, while a less comprehensive overhaul than originally imagined by Republicans, makes major changes to both the corporate and individual tax systems. It cuts the corporate rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, increases the deduction for so-called pass-through businesses, lowers the rates of individual tax brackets and doubles the standard deduction, while significantly limiting several popular tax deductions. It also repeals the individual mandate from the Affordable Care Act.
Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican whose district is being targeted by Democrats in 2018, said the bill provided a capstone for the party’s first year with unified control of government.
“We had to have today to be able to say we were doing our job that we said we’d do,” Sessions said immediately after the House vote. “We delivered by the end of the year. Did the Dallas Cowboys win the game in the third quarter? No. It took to the last minute of the game, and then the Dallas Cowboys won.”
Still, Republicans face a serious hurdle in selling their legislation to the public, as polling has shown it to be widely unpopular.
The Tax Policy Center, in an analysis of the main provisions of the final version of the bill, found that 80.4 percent of people would receive a tax cut that averaged $2,140, while 4.8 percent would see a tax increase averaging $2,770. But in a CNN poll released Tuesday, only 21 percent of voters said they would be better off if the bill was passed into law, while 37 percent said they would be worse off, and 36 percent said they would be about the same.
Republicans acknowledge the public remains unconvinced they’ll benefit from the legislation, but are adamant that once it takes effect, that pattern will shift. Speaker Paul Ryan, in a press conference hours before the bill passed, said he had “no concerns whatsoever” about the measure not being a political winner.
“When you have a sling-fest, a mud-fest on TV, when pundits are slamming each other about this tax bill before it passes, that’s what’s going to happen,” Ryan said of the low poll numbers. But he argued taxpayers would see some immediate benefits next year that will shift the debate. “Results are going to make this popular.”
Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said he thought Democrats misstepped by arguing that middle-class families would see tax increases. A small percentage of taxpayers will face tax hikes next year, a number that grows significantly in later years as the lower individual rates expire. But according to multiple independent analyses, the majority of Americans will see cuts immediately.
“I frankly think Democrats have overplayed their hand because when people back home, in our local businesses, see the tax relief, they’re going to know they weren’t really told the truth by the opponents of tax reform,” Brady said.
But some Republicans conceded they hadn’t done a good enough job explaining the legislation in their haste to pass it before the end of the year. Rep. Greg Walden, a former chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, said the party had not done a good enough job messaging the specifics of the bill.
Some have drawn comparisons between the Republicans’ arguments and those made in 2010, when Democrats insisted that the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act would reverse once Americans benefited from the specifics of the legislation. Rep. Tom Cole, another former chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, said he didn’t think they could entirely reverse the unpopularity of their proposal, but argued it’s an easier sell than the health care bill was seven years ago, and that it would energize and mobilize the party’s base voters.
“That [alone] is not enough to hold a majority, but it’s enough to hold like 90 percent of the seats you have, and then you have to count on the campaign skills and resources of the people that are out there holding the tough ground for you,” Cole said.
Still, though it may be the party’s capstone achievement of its first year holding sway in Washington, this is hardly the final action on Capitol Hill this year. Lawmakers must meet a Friday deadline to keep the government funded, and there isn’t yet a clear path to legislation that both chambers could agree to -- though lawmakers on both sides insist they will avoid a shutdown. House Republicans are pushing a bill that fully funds defense spending for the remainder of the fiscal year while funding the rest of the government into January, something that likely can’t pass the Senate because of Democratic objections.
Senate Republicans, on the other hand, are contemplating measures to shore up the individual health care markets, which could cause a rebellion from House conservatives.
Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives, said it would be frustrating to get jammed by the Senate as the shutdown deadline approaches after tasting victory on the tax bill. But with just days remaining, it is a distinct possibility that Republicans’ tax-victory lap could be shortened.
“It’s kind of like leaving the hospital, just finding out you’re cancer-free, and getting run over by a Mack truck,” Walker told reporters.