Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Republican tax bill is good for small business owners. “Every small business that I can think of is on board for this comprehensive tax reform,” he said. (Nov. 28) AP
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans opened debate on a sweeping tax overhaul Wednesday, setting the stage for a contentious floor fight even as GOP negotiators were still haggling over major changes behind closed doors.
In a party-line 52-48 vote, Republicans forced a floor debate over the next several days on the tax bill that not a single Democrat is likely to endorse. That will open the floodgates for a cascade of amendments from Republicans and Democrats alike, with the outcome uncertain. Some Republicans who voted to bring the bill to the floor are not yet committed to supporting the final measure.
“It’s just all very fluid,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., one of several Republicans pushing for major modifications before committing to vote “yes” on a final package.
The biggest sticking point is a push from deficit hawks to include a “trigger” in the legislation that would automatically increase taxes or cut spending if the bill doesn’t spark enough economic growth enough to make up for the revenue lost by cutting taxes.
The bill is expected to sap $1.5 trillion over ten years from the federal treasury. Most Republicans argue that the tax cuts will prod businesses to expand — hiring more workers, raising wages, and generating more revenue. But outside groups project the tax bill would still add to the deficit even with the greater economic growth.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wants a “trigger” in case those projections are right. But his proposal has sparked fierce opposition from other Republicans.
“It’s a bad idea,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the billionaire industrialists Charles Koch and David Koch.
Phillips spoke at a news conference Wednesday morning flanked by several Republican senators, who all said a trigger would create uncertainty for businesses and stifle growth instead of spurring it.
“I don’t want the trigger and I’ll argue against the trigger,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said at the news conference.
But Heller and other Republicans seemed resigned to including such a provision to win Corker’s vote. Republicans hold a 52-48 seat majority in the Senate, so they can’t lose more than two GOP votes and still win passage of the tax bill.
Corker did not provide details of his proposal, and other lawmakers said it was still being negotiated.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said at least three options were on the table:
• a trigger for automatic tax increases if economic growth doesn’t meet expectations;
• a trigger for automatic cuts in discretionary spending if economic growth doesn’t meet expectations; and
• a trigger for bigger tax cuts if economic growth exceeds expectations.
“We’re still talking about the different options,” Kennedy said. But “time is not our friend here because we’re all being heavily lobbied on every issue imaginable.”
While the trigger seemed to be the toughest flashpoint, it wasn’t the only one. Lawmakers were also wrangling over everything from deductions for state and local income taxes to more generous tax breaks for so-called “pass through businesses.” Those are companies that, unlike major corporations, pay their business taxes on the owner’s personal return.
Sen. Susan Collins, another key GOP swing vote who has raised a variety of concerns about the tax bill, said she planned to vote “yes” on the motion to start debate on the bill. But the Maine Republican would not commit to voting for the final package. She said she’s filed “many amendments” that she’d like to see included in the proposal.
“It’s like making a cocktail,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “If you’ve got to add more of this and less of that, I’m fine.”
But, Graham added, “failure’s not an option.”
Wednesday’s vote was just the first step, with the legislation now subject to unlimited amendments. Democrats are staunchly opposed to the bill, which they argue is tilted to benefit big corporations and wealthy individuals, and they will likely use the open process to slow the bill down.
Several Republican senators also plan to offer legislative changes. Eventually lawmakers on both sides will wear themselves out, and a final vote could come as early as Thursday night or Friday morning.
If the bill passes the Senate, House GOP leaders could try to push it through as is. But they’re more likely to convene a conference committee charged with hashing out the differences between the House and Senate proposals. That compromise would then have to be approved by both chambers again.
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