There’s a drama playing out in the Senate right now, but the key to knowing what’s going to happen with this monstrosity of a tax bill is to understand that it’s all theater. All those allegedly wavering Republicans, poring over the details and unsure of whether they’re going to be able to bring themselves to vote for the bill?
They’re full of it. They’re posturing, maneuvering, angling for a few extra concessions and pretending to care deeply about things such as the deficit. With perhaps one exception (John McCain), they’re all going to vote for it in the end.
McCain may wind up voting against it, because he likes being contrary and he doesn’t really seem to care anymore. But the rest of the supposedly undecided votes — as many as 10, depending on whom you include — aren’t really undecided at all.
The first and most important thing to keep in mind is that if a Republican senator says he might not vote for the bill because he’s terribly concerned about the deficit, he is lying. Deficits are something Republicans pretend to care about when there’s a Democratic president or when they’re trying to slash the safety net, but it’s an act. Not a single Republican will vote against this bill because it raises the deficit. Not one. In the end they’ll all decide cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy is just too darn important, and anyway the tax cuts will create such an explosion of growth that we won’t have to worry about the deficit anyway.
What about those couple of senators who say they’re worried about the bill’s repeal of the individual mandate? A couple (like Jerry Moran) have said they’d like to do it separately from the tax bill, but the one who objected most loudly was Susan Collins. Yet after President Trump gave her some assurances that he’d support the Alexander-Murray bill to stabilize health-care markets (and we know he can be trusted to keep his promises!) she changed her tune, saying the bill has the “potential to not only maintain the job growth and market gains we have made this year, but also to continue these positive trends in the future.”
Well today, the Congressional Budget Office says that even if Alexander-Murray passed, the coverage losses and premium increases produced by eliminating the mandate would still happen. Is that going to change Collins’s vote? I’m guessing she’ll say she’s very concerned and then wind up voting yes in the end.
Let’s take a look at some of the other key undecided votes, and how they’re all coming around:
- Bob Corker: Corker has been crystal clear about his principled concern about raising the deficit. “If I believe it’s going to add to the deficit, I’m not going to vote for it,” he said about the tax bill. But we know already that the bill is going to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit in the next 10 years. So when the bill came up for a vote in the Budget Committee yesterday, Corker voted against it, right? Nope. He voted in favor, saying that he had received assurances that the bill will be modified later on to address his debt concerns.
- Ron Johnson: Johnson has been complaining that corporate taxes are being lowered to 20 percent, but the “pass-through” loophole, which would allow people who own certain businesses to no longer pay individual rates on their income but instead pay a special lower rate, isn’t wide enough. It just so happens that he owns a pass-through company. Johnson is obviously just negotiating to get even better terms for owners of pass-throughs such as himself. He’ll get as many concessions as he can, and then he’ll vote yes — just as he did on the Budget Committee vote yesterday.
- Jeff Flake: He can’t stand Trump, and he’s not running for reelection, right? Well just listen to this interview Flake gave to NPR this morning. Flake nods to concern about about the deficit, then says that if you account for the growth the tax bill will allegedly create, it won’t cost a thing. He says he hasn’t made up his mind, but it’s clear he’ll be voting yes.
- Lisa Murkowski: Some thought that she’d object to the elimination of the individual mandate, too. But she just announced that she supports the elimination, and having gotten a provision in the budget agreement to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it looks like Murkowski will be on board.
There are a few other senators who have been pretending they might vote no because of the deficit, and some of them have floated the idea of a “trigger,” under which if the tax bill fails to produce the spectacular growth Republicans have promised and deficits increase, the cuts would be rolled back. This is both a stupid idea and one that Republicans are not going to agree to, because it would mean a tax increase at some point in the future, perhaps at a moment (like during a recession) when a tax increase is bad policy. So they’re both ideologically disinclined toward it and afraid of it, because most of them know that just like every other tax cut they’ve passed, this one will absolutely, positively never pay for itself.
So what’s going to happen? This Budget Committee vote was a preview. Those supposedly undecided Republicans will continue to express their reservations but vote for the bill anyway. They may even say that it’s okay for a bill that explodes the deficit to pass through the Senate because it’ll get cleaned up when the conference committee takes the bills passed by each chamber and combines them into a final bill.
But here’s the thing about that: There may never be a conference committee. That’s because it will present another hurdle to get over and another opportunity for things to get messy. What if the process allows more time for opposition to build? If it comes to that, Republicans who believe their political survival depends on this bill passing may become terrified, and eager to declare victory.
They could do that in the following way: Even though the House has passed its own version of a tax bill, once the Senate passes its bill, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan could simply toss the House’s bill in the trash and put the Senate bill up for a vote in the House. If it passes, they’re done. It can go to the president for his signature. Some Republicans in the House might grumble that their version was better, but faced with such an easy prospect to declare victory, they’ll take it.
The senators who are saying they’re undecided are negotiating, using the possibility of their defection to extract concessions and make the bill more like what they’d prefer. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s a part of legislating. But don’t be fooled into thinking they won’t be voting yes in the end.