House conservatives are already indicating that they're prepared to block some of the key legislative promises that Senate Republicans demanded in exchange for their votes on tax reform legislation.
Those promises materialized in the frantic final hours of the tax debate last week, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gave Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) assurances that some of their personal legislative priorities would be dealt with in exchange for their votes.
Collins said she received a promise that the Senate would consider two bipartisan pieces of legislation that would ostensibly mitigate the negative effects that could come from the tax bill’s repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate. Flake said he received a “firm commitment from Senate Leadership and the administration” to work on a permanent protections for the soon-to-be-ended Obama-era program that shields children of undocumented immigrants.
Both senators ended up voting for the tax bill, giving it the 51 “yes” votes it needed to pass. Within days, however, reality began setting in that those promises might have been flimsy at best.
Moving the Collins and Flake deals through the House was always going to be an uphill climb, with a conservative bloc sharply opposed to both measures, having dubbed DACA a de facto form of amnesty and arguing that the health insurance market stabilization bills that Collins supports are tantamount to a bailout for health insurers and what they view as a broken system. On Monday, those conservatives railed against McConnell for making promises on legislation that they have long opposed.
“We still have the same issues. Nothing has changed in the last two months just because we’re fulfilling our promise on delivering on tax reform,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told The Daily Beast. “I find it problematic to be promising something that the House has shunned from very early on.”
Lawmakers made it clear that they felt no reason to support the proposed deals, and blamed Senate leaders for trying to wheel and deal their way to a successful result on reforming the tax code and slashing rates, an issue they believe all Republicans should have been united around from the start.
“I think this is exactly what the American people are sick of: learning about trading votes to modify the healthcare system and one fifth of the economy in exchange for a tax vote,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told The Daily Beast. “So it seems like it would be wiser for Republicans to actually follow what is in the Republican platform and not what is in the Democratic platform.”
GOP leadership has long had difficulty corralling its conservative members on even its own agenda. And on Monday, aides scoffed at the idea that leadership would be able to sell them on swallowing what the Senate’s more moderate lawmakers produced in their tax bill—let alone really try.
“McConnell is asking for us to vote for these unpalatable things to do tax reform,” a conservative House GOP aide told The Daily Beast. “We have someone who’s taking a hostage, we have to negotiate with them, and, oh, they happen to be from the same party.”
The aide was granted anonymity to candidly discuss House conservatives’ longstanding frustrations with the Senate and with McConnell throughout the Trump presidency, in particular the upper chamber’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The likelihood that the House declines to follow through on either the Collins or Flake measures may not, in the end, complicate tax reform at all. The Senate has already passed its tax bill and the House could simply pass the Senate’s bill—meaning that even if the senators raise objections, the bill would still be able to pass.
Collins had been extremely skeptical of the Senate version because it included a repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate—something that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says would result in 13 million more Americans uninsured over the next 10 years. She demanded that Congress pass two bills in exchange: one crafted by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) that aims to lower premiums in 2018; the other co-authored by Collins and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and would provide a federal reinsurance pool worth $10.5 billion.
Flake, meanwhile, is one of a few Republicans who supports a bipartisan version of the DREAM Act that was introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But while Durbin, the Senate Minority Whip, has said he’s willing to block any spending bill that does not codify DREAMer protections before the end of the year, Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have said they don’t plan to deal with the issue by the end of the year. The White House, meanwhile, has stressed that they only promised Flake a seat at the table, not a final legislative outcome.
On Monday, Flake downplayed the significance of the administration’s commitment to work with DACA, which was given when Trump first announced he was rescinding the program in September with a six-month phase-out. Instead, the Arizona senator described it as an affirmation of Congress’ role in the process.
“Both the vice president and the president have said they want to work with me on it. That wasn’t my condition to vote for the bill. It wasn’t. It was a secondary thing. But I’m glad I got it,” Flake told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The problem is what we’ve seen so far for Congress, it seems, is not in the attempt to reach a deal [but] to make a statement rather than make a law. And these kids are going to be timed out here soon. And so we’ve got to actually get serious with it.”
Flake has been one of Trump’s sharpest critics. When he announced in October that he wasn’t seeking re-election in 2018, he took to the Senate floor to cast Trump as a “reckless” threat to democracy.
On DACA, though, the senator appears to have faith in Trump.
“I’ve said before I think this is one area the president has said some good things about wanting to do it. I think his instincts on DACA, at least, are probably better than some of the advice that he’s gotten on this,” Flake added.