Jules Witcover: Senate GOP dissenters may sink tax bill, delivering goose egg to Trump
WASHINGTON — President Trump rejoiced last week that House Republicans reprised their earlier vote to repeal Obamacare by passing a major tax reform bill that included eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.
The measure, which would lift the financial penalty on those who fail to buy health insurance, amounts to a partial repeal of Obamacare.
After the House originally voted to repeal the health care law, a handful of Senate colleagues rejected the repeal, and the mandate remains in place for now, to the chagrin of Trump and most Republicans in Congress. They have long yearned to get rid of the forced purchase of such insurance as yet another “socialist” scheme.
Trump and the House GOP caucus now face a similar rebuff from Republican dissenters in the Senate, where enough party members may oppose abandoning the individual mandate.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has already said he won’t support the tax bill as written because it favors corporate interests over small business enterprises. And Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of three Republicans who voted against Obamacare repeal earlier this year, said it was “a mistake” to include Obamacare repeal in the tax bill.
The other two naysayers on the Senate vote that saved Obamacare — John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — along with Bob Corker of Tennessee have not yet committed to support the Senate tax version. The proponents hope to pass it under the Senate “reconciliation” procedure requiring only 52 votes rather than the customary 60.
The president on Thursday went to Capitol Hill and met with a group of House Republicans before the vote, telling them succinctly: “I love you. Now vote.” A majority did, and the tax bill passed 227-205, with only 13 Republicans voting against.
That enabled House Speaker Paul Ryan to say: “Passing this bill is the single biggest thing we can do to grow the economy, restore opportunity and help these middle-income families who are struggling. This is something that’s going to refresh our confidence in ourselves and our confidence in each other.”
Indeed, there was considerable pressure on the congressional Republicans to achieve a single legislative victory in the first year of the Trump presidency, after a series of pointed rebuffs.
After the House vote Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee met and approved the tax bill without reference to removing the individual health-care mandate. And Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell said he would bring the Senate version to the chamber’s floor for debate and vote after the Thanksgiving holiday recess.
But it seems clear that the proposed tax cuts, as well as the attempt again to kill Obamacare through the elimination of the individual mandate, are headed for considerable resistance in the Senate. All 48 Democrats are expected to oppose the bill, and some of the earlier Republican resisters are likely to balk again under the 50-vote reconciliation procedure.
Among the 13 in the House opposing the tax bill, many told The Washington Post their constituents were in districts where they calculated their taxes would go up as a result of the elimination of existing deductions and tax credits. Rep. Barbara Comstock of Northern Virginia, who voted for it nevertheless, said she would work to improve the bill, and with many differences between the House and Senate versions, “this is going to be process.”
The earlier attempt to repeal Obamacare was a “process,” too — a failed one that culminated in post-midnight deciding vote cast by the seriously ailing McCain, whose dramatic return to the chamber made him the hero of health-care proponents, to Trump’s continued ire.
The stage thus is set for another nail-biting Senate roll call in which those earlier naysayers may well again prove to be spoilers of Trump’s and Ryan’s desperate desire finally squeeze a 2017 success out of this reluctant Republican Congress.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.