This morning, Democrats held a press conference to demand that the Republicans put off final votes on the GOP tax bill until Doug Jones can take his seat in the Senate. “It would be wrong for Senate Republicans to jam through this tax bill without giving the duly elected senator from Alabama a chance to cast his vote,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
You will be shocked to learn that Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are unpersuaded. Instead, Jones’s win has only made it more urgent that they pass their tax bill immediately. They’re running out of time, and they’ve got lots of problems to solve. Complete failure is a greater possibility right at this moment than it has been at any point in the process.
Which is why it isn’t surprising that this just happened:
House and Senate GOP leaders have forged an agreement on a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax laws. That paves the way for final votes next week to slash taxes for businesses and give most people tax cuts starting next year.
Top GOP aides say the deal was reached on Wednesday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the deal. Details still need to be drafted and assessed by congressional scorekeepers but the final House-Senate compromise is on track to be unveiled this week.
Details are sketchy at this point; it’s been reported that they may lower the top tax rate from 39.6 percent to 37 percent, and that people may be allowed to deduct $10,000 of state, local, or property taxes — not as much of a tax increase for those in blue states than we thought, but still a hit. Those are just a couple of hundreds of decisions they’ll have to make, and it seems pretty obvious that Doug Jones’ victory freaked them the heck out. They’re in a panic to pass a tax bill while they still can.
That means, first and foremost, passing the bill before Jones’s victory gets certified by the state of Alabama, which the secretary of state says won’t happen before December 26. As of now, Congress is scheduled to leave for its holiday break on December 22, next Friday. Once they return and Jones takes his seat, they’ll have only a 51-49 advantage in the Senate, meaning they can lose only one vote.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) already voted against the Senate version of the tax bill, so if he doesn’t change his vote, that would mean they couldn’t lose any others. But what emerges from the conference committee will inevitably move in the direction of the House bill, which is full of cruel provisions that punish middle class people in order to help corporations and the wealthy.
That would put them in danger of losing Susan Collins (R-Maine), who said she voted for the Senate bill only because she got promises that its elimination of the individual health insurance mandate would be made up for with the passage of other bills to stabilize the insurance markets.
Pretty much everybody except Collins herself thinks she got played, and those bills are never going to pass, particularly in the House. She’s coming under huge pressure to change her vote, and let’s not forget that this is already one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation in history.
But if they can pass the bill by next week, they can lose Corker and Collins and still have a 50-50 tie, which Vice President Pence would break.
That’s still a high-risk strategy. While it’s possible that the compromise bill will remove some of the more horrifying provisions, it’s certain to retain many of them, and perhaps insert some new ones that make it even more clear who wins and who loses. All of that will be the subject of plenty of news reports as journalists and experts pore over the details, which will likely serve to make it even less popular than it is now.
That makes it all the more urgent for Republicans to pass it this week, no matter how much of a turkey it is. But you could easily imagine Collins getting spooked and John McCain or someone else objecting to the haste with which it’s being jammed through, which would be enough to kill it.
There’s a solution to that problem, but it looks like Republicans closed it off when they were frantically rewriting the bill at the last moment before it passed the Senate. It’s what Democrats did in 2010 with the Affordable Care Act, and what some (including myself) have predicted Republicans might do now as a last resort: just take the Senate bill, pass it through the House, and they’d be finished.
The trouble is that when they were writing the Senate bill, Republicans screwed up in a way that now makes that course of action all but impossible.
It’s a somewhat complex tale (you can read an explanation here), but the short version is that when they were scrambling to insert hand-written provisions at the last moment, they reinstated the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) at the same 20 percent rate as the regular corporate income tax (the House bill repeals the AMT). That means that corporations wouldn’t be able to reduce their taxes any lower than 20 percent. They wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the R&D credit or any of the other delicious loopholes that remain in the code. So the Senate half-inadvertently removed as much as $300 billion in corporate tax cuts they wanted to dole out.
Keep in mind, cutting corporate taxes is the centerpiece of this whole bill. Since this problem was identified, Republicans have been saying that they’ll figure out how to eliminate the corporate AMT and still make the numbers work out. But this mistake means that they won’t be willing to default to the version of the bill that passed the Senate.
Which means it’s the conference committee bill or nothing. And as they frantically put that bill together, what are the chances it’ll be free of provisions that the public is going to recoil at the sight of? Writing a gigantic, sweeping reform of the tax system in just a few days might enable you to pass it before opposition can coalesce and mobilize, but it also might cause just enough relatively sane senators to want to hit the pause button.
Right now though, that’s a risk Republican leaders are willing to take. They’re desperately hoping that they can pass their bill before anyone realizes what it actually does. They’re going to hand the bill to their caucuses in both houses and give them only a couple of days to decide whether to vote on something with gigantic implications for every American. It may succeed, but it’s a big gamble.