Behind closed doors, President Donald Trump's pitch was simple: we need a win
Republican lawmakers were on edge until moments before the vote
In a matter of hours, the Republican tax bill – the last hope Republican senators had of making a major legislative push this year – went from hanging on by a thread to moving full steam ahead to the Senate floor.
In an afternoon that included a visit from President Donald Trump and around-the-clock negotiations, Republican senators found their footing, came around and passed the tax overhaul out of the Senate Budget Committee in a party line vote.
“This is the US Senate. People are compromising, people are bringing in new ideas and actually having a real debate,” said Sen. David Perdue, a Republican from Georgia. “Frankly, I’m ecstatic that we just passed this out of the Budget Committee. Now, we put it on the floor. I’m very hopeful we’ll get this passed this week.”
Senators voted in the Budget Committee amid raucous protests. Outside the markup, protesters marched up and down the hallway, shouting at senators. “Kill the bill, don’t kill us,” they yelled, echoing chants that were used during the at times chaotic protests of the health care debate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, growing irritated, asked for one woman to be removed as she loudly tried to drown out his gaggle before cameras. After the hearing started, protesters in the room were dragged or carried out into the hallway and arrested.
Still, the bill passed the committee and several GOP senators said they expected a vote on the Senate floor by the end of the week.
There’s still more work to be done and concerns to be ironed out before the final vote in the Senate, but the mood Tuesday afternoon varied greatly from the tension that permeated the Capitol in the morning when two Senators on the Budget Committee – Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin – were still pledging they might vote against the GOP’s best efforts since 1987 to pass a tax reform bill out of the Budget committee. The GOP only had a one-vote majority on the committee so a “no” from either would prevent the bill from advancing.
Republican lawmakers supporting the tax bill were on edge, hoping that their colleagues on the fence would come around.
“I think the American people will look at all of us and say ‘I can’t believe you people didn’t pass this bill. How did you make it out of the birth canal? A pox on all your houses,’” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said.
For many members on the fence, the fruits of weeks-long negotiations panned out just moments before the Budget Committee vote. Corker – whose key concerns centered around how the tax bill would affect the country’s deficit – told reporters as he left the weekly Senate lunch that he had just struck a deal on a plan to ensure some kind of backup if the GOP’s tax proposal didn’t generate the kind of economic growth the party anticipated.
“I think we’ve come to a pretty good place,” Corker said noting he spent all of Thanksgiving weekend on the phone with Trump administration officials like Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. “I think we got a commitment that puts us in a pretty good place.”
Lunch with Trump – which has in the past had the effect at times of actually imperiling negotiations rather than advancing them – even seemed to assuage concerns of some of the most skeptical lawmakers. Sen. Susan Collin, a Republican from Maine, had expressed concerns with including a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate to have health insurance in the tax bill noting that it could lead to spiking premiums for consumers. But Collins said she was getting more comfortable with the tax bill (albeit still undecided) after Trump told her in lunch that he supported two provisions that would bolster the Obamacare market place, referencing bipartisan legislation from Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray.
“So, I believe I have secured an agreement that the Alexander-Murray bill – which reinstates the cost savings reductions and gives more flexibility to states, plus a bill that I have introduced with Bill Nelson, which would authorize and provide some seed money for high risks pools which would ensure that people with preexisting conditions are protected and would also help to lower premiums – would be considered and signed into law before the conference report on the tax bill comes back,” Collins said.
Behind closed doors, Trump’s pitch to fellow Republicans was simple: we need a win and tax reform is it. One GOP aide told CNN that Trump and the senators had a “vibrant and robust” discussion on taxes, but a Republican senator noted Trump didn’t make any unusual or controversial remarks. Instead, the senator described Trump as businesslike and focused on taxes.
Even Johnson, who had made headlines weeks ago for announcing he’d vote against the tax bill, came around in the end, as he cast a “yes” vote in the Budget Committee.
Johnson had said he would be a “no” in committee unless he saw more parity on the way corporations and pass-through entities were taxed, but according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Trump called on Johnson directly to back the tax bill, and take his concerns over the tax bill to the conference. Several senators also stood up and urged Johnson to offer an amendment on the floor to address his concerns and not try to stall bill.”
Despite his “yes” vote in the committee, Johnson told reporters later Tuesday that he won’t commit to voting to bring the tax bill to the floor for debate.
“We need to make some progress,” Johnson told CNN when asked if he’d commit to voting for the bill.
As Johnson previewed, Republicans still have plenty more obstacles ahead, but in just the span of an afternoon, the GOP tax bill looks very much alive once again.