The Votes for Tax Reform Are Falling Into Place

Republican holdouts are moving closer to “yes.”

Sen. Bob Corker listens to testimony during a committee hearing Nov. 14 in Washington.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

This post has been updated with new information since it was originally published.

As members of the Senate Budget Committee were arriving for a key vote on the Republican tax reform bill on Tuesday, they were greeted by a familiar passel of protesters, chanting, “Shame!” and “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” The protesters went so far as to talk directly into several of the senators’ ears as they tried to do hallway television interviews. Some senators ignored the protesters. Others didn’t.

“Hey, can you get this lady out of my ear so I can do an interview?” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham snapped to a cop, who obeyed.

But the hallway ruckus was about the only drama that came out of the budget meeting. The committee quickly approved the bill along party lines, 12 to 11. Two senators who had kept their votes up in the air—Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker—decided to move the process along, after a caucus lunch with President Trump that appeared to go unusually well.

The votes are falling into place. In fact, all 52 Republican senators could be within reach.

Yes, even Maine Sen. Susan Collins. During his visit to the Hill, Trump made a number of concessions to earn her vote. Trump—who, keep in mind, has been known to change his position on short-term health care issues—agreed to support both the Alexander-Murray Obamacare stabilization bill and the reinsurance bill Collins co-sponsored with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, in exchange for repealing the individual mandate. Those bills would be brought up after the Senate passes its tax package—or, more likely, tucked into the end-of-year spending bill. Trump and GOP leaders also showed interest in incorporating the House’s $10,000 property tax deduction, another of Collins’ requests. (This is something Senate leaders will have to agree to either now or in conference committee, anyway, since a bill that fully eliminates state and local tax deductions can’t pass the House.)

“I think they’re eager to help me get to yes,” Collins said after receiving her many concessions. And Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Collins’ fellow moderate, told reporters Tuesday that “things are progressing, and I certainly feel more positive today than any point along the way.”

The deficit hawks are getting closer too. The plan they’ve hatched over the previous days is alternately referred to as the “trigger,” the “backstop,” or the “circuit breaker.” In short, it is a mechanism that would boost revenue if the massive economic growth that leaders promise from the bill doesn’t materialize. The specifics of this clunky idea, which has its opponents inside and outside the Senate Republican conference, still haven’t been revealed. But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told me Tuesday that a “framework” for it has been agreed to. Corker, one of the chief deficit hawks, signaled just before the budget vote that a handshake agreement of sorts was in place. “I was able to work on something that is fairly satisfying to me just a few minutes ago,” he said. If it passes muster with Corker, then it’s likely to get Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, too, since the two have been working together on a plan.

Senators who hate the “trigger” idea—the threat of future additional tax hikes, they argue, might prevent the economic growth from occurring in the first place—could be appeased by ensuring that the trigger is weak enough to never be invoked or through another option that other senators began floating Tuesday: that if economic growth vastly surpasses their expectations, then further tax cuts would be triggered. If all else fails, though, leaders can simply remind the trigger-haters that this is what it takes to pass the bill and they’d better suck it up.

The two senators who want further breaks for pass-through businesses, Johnson and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, are also working through their issues. Johnson, who sometimes announces threats he doesn’t mean whatsoever, had said Monday that he wouldn’t vote for the bill in committee without an agreement. That changed during lunch, when Trump personally called him out and asked him to have a little faith. When Johnson emerged from lunch, he said he would vote for the bill in committee under the understanding that he had received “commitments we are going to get this fixed.” He and Daines will receive some sort of accommodation as the bill moves to the floor. They can choose either to accept it, or to kill their party’s signature legislative effort. Do not expect the latter.

The committee vote doesn’t mean tax reform is a done deal. Those handshake agreements still have to turn into paper agreements, and the costs that Trump and leaders have agreed to throw into the bill will have to be offset with revenue-raisers elsewhere. Further bombshells could derail the process in the coming minutes, hours, or days. The Joint Committee on Taxation, for example, said in a letter Tuesday that it could release a “dynamic” score of the proposal by Wednesday night, which is expected to show that growth won’t nearly recoup the $1.5 trillion cost of the cuts. We also don’t really know what Arizona Sen. John McCain is thinking, and the proposal’s budget gimmicks bother Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake more than they do his fellow deficit hawks.

But Cornyn has been telling reporters something in the past day that, unlike a lot of things Cornyn tells reporters, aligns with what I’ve seen and heard this week.

“I think everybody wants to get to yes,” he said Tuesday, “and with health care, it was clear that no matter what happens, we were going to have some that were ‘no’ votes.”

Right now, it’s not clear which, if any, Republican senators will vote no.