It took almost a full year, but congressional Republicans can now tout “mission accomplished” on a major agenda item in 2017.
The Senate and House on Tuesday and Wednesday approved a major overhaul of the U.S. tax code—a massive package of corporate and individual tax cuts that adds more than $1 trillion to the federal deficit. A procedural hiccup delayed a final House vote until Wednesday afternoon, but both chambers approved nearly identical pieces of legislation on Tuesday.
The effort represents a major political victory for congressional Republicans and the president, who have dealt with a series of bruising legislative defeats so far this year as they gear up for the 2018 midterm elections.
But the toughest part is yet to come as lawmakers find themselves staring down the barrel of a Friday deadline to keep the government’s lights on. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made multiple promises to GOP holdouts in order to ensure the tax bill’s passage, setting up a battle between the House and the Senate later this week over what to include in a must-pass year-end spending package.
Like most hurdles that have grinded Congress to a halt over the past year, the trouble revolves around Obamacare and moderate members of the Senate.
One of those moderates, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), voted for the tax legislation only after receiving assurances from GOP leaders that the Senate would vote on two separate health-care measures that are widely opposed by conservatives. One, crafted by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), would reinstate subsidies known as cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments that Trump cut off earlier this year. The other, introduced by Collins and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), would create a federal reinsurance pool worth $10.5 billion.
Collins believes that the Alexander-Murray and Collins-Nelson bills, if they become law, will mitigate the impacts of repealing the individual mandate under Obamacare, which requires Americans to buy insurance or face a penalty. The mandate is scrapped under the tax bill, and Collins sought to ensure that both pieces of legislation would get a floor vote before the end of the year.
The Senate has the 60 votes necessary to pass Alexander-Murray and Collins-Nelson. Both have bipartisan support and sponsorship. But with the two bills facing stiff conservative resistance in the House, it’s highly unlikely that either will ever become law—leaving Collins, therefore, with no mechanism to counteract the repeal of the individual mandate.
“We’re a long ways to the end of this, so I’m not going to comment on the stories that you all are trying to write,” Collins told The Daily Beast on Tuesday just before the final vote on the tax bill. “I’m not going to comment on this. I am positive that Mitch McConnell is going to add the bills to the [spending package] when it comes over.”
She went on to call the media coverage of her vote “unbelievably sexist.”
“I cannot believe that the press would have treated another senator with 20 years of experience as they have treated me,” she added. “They’ve ignored everything that I’ve gotten and written story after story about how I’m duped. How am I duped when all your amendments get accepted?”
McConnell vowed again on Monday to include both health care bills as part of the year-end spending package, but the House is unlikely to even consider the same measures in part because they are opposed by most House Republicans. On Tuesday, some lawmakers there suggested adding language banning the use of federal funds for abortions, but such a measure would derail a compromise with Democrats.
Throughout the remainder of the week, the House and Senate will play ping-pong with each other as they stare down the Friday deadline. If both chambers don’t act on the same legislative language before 11:59 p.m. on Friday night, the government shuts down. For his part, McConnell said just before the tax vote on Tuesday that a shutdown was “not going to happen.”
Frustrated conservatives in the House have long decried McConnell’s “unpalatable” promises to moderate lawmakers, arguing that they shouldn’t be forced to vote for something they don’t like just because of one senator’s demands.
“The Senate will try to add this to whatever the House passes but Mitch is not the Speaker of the House and House members know that. The general sentiment is that we worked hard all year to pass all 12 appropriations and now Mitch is trying to make it our problem that he cannot pass a tax bill in the Senate after working only two and a half days a week all year,” a senior House GOP aide, granted anonymity to give a candid assessment of House members’ thinking, told The Daily Beast.
“We have a winning strategy with a defense [spending bill] in place and Mitch needs to work with De Facto Majority Leader Collins on a solution that responsibly funds the government without backroom deals,” the aide added.
House Republicans have consistently argued that the Alexander-Murray bill is akin to a bailout of Obamacare. But President Donald Trump also backs the legislation, and on the Senate side, even some of the most conservative lawmakers support it. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a co-sponsor, says the House just needs to learn more about it.
“This really is not a continuation but a transition away from Obamacare. I’m not sure that we’ve really had a chance to explain that in order to transition away from Obamacare, it takes us two years to do that,” Rounds told The Daily Beast. “If they really want to repeal and replace Obamacare, this is step one. … Once again, we’re jamming everything up at the end of the year which is not a good way to do business. But it is what we’re faced with at this point.”
Murray, the bill’s namesake, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that she was hearing “rumors” that the bill was being amended, but Alexander said he knew of no such changes. Changes or not, Democrats have argued that repealing the individual mandate will wreak havoc on the health care marketplace beyond repair.
“The Alexander-Murray bill was never designed to fix the problem that they’re creating with this tax bill,” Murray said. “I actually don’t know what was promised to Susan Collins.”