Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made tactical adjustments in his approach to crafting a historic federal tax overhaul that could serve as a model for holding his slim majority together in a tough re-election year.
Smarting from the embarrassing collapse of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, the Kentucky Republican designated four deputies to work with his rank and file as the Senate Finance Committee drafted tax reform. The process created a more inclusive atmosphere, enabling leadership to resolve many disputes before the package hit the floor for debate.
“By the time the bill got out of committee, I think there were 45 to 47 of my members pretty satisfied with the product. Of course, when you’re at 52-48, every man is a king and every woman is a queen. And, there was the usual elbowing for advantage,” McConnell said late Thursday in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
McConnell’s deputies, Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio; Tim Scott of South Carolina; John Thune of South Dakota; and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, worked with small groups of members, in the leader’s office, to keep them up to date and carry their concerns back to the Finance Committee.
It was a change from the tight grip McConnell kept on the failed healthcare bill. The legislation, a partial repeal and replacement of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, was written by the leader and a small group of members, mostly in his suite, and presented to the conference as, essentially, take-it-or-leave-it.
McConnell said tax reform unfolded differently in that there was a desire “to get to ‘yes’” that simply didn’t exist with healthcare. But he emphasized that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was a crucial player in pushing tax reform over the finish line, calling his announced support for the $1.5 trillion overhaul several weeks before the vote a "breakthrough moment.”
The respected lawmaker, who sank Obamacare repeal with his dramatic, middle-of-the-night “no” vote on the Senate floor, ended up missing the final roll call on tax because of treatment for brain cancer. But his influence was felt. “Given how Obamacare went down, that was a message that this was going to be different — looked at differently,” McConnell said.
Senate Republicans’ 52-48 majority shrinks to 51-49 in January, when Democratic Senator-elect Doug Jones, the winner of an Alabama special election earlier in December, replaces outgoing appointed Sen. Luther Strange.
That gives McConnell minimal space to maneuver, especially as Republicans prepare to defend their majority in a midterm shaping up as a possible Democratic wave driven by dissatisfaction with President Trump. Tax reform will likely stand as the singular ambitious legislative achievement the Republicans have to run on next year.
The top priority for Trump and Republicans in Congress when they return from their holiday break is negotiating a long-term agreement on government funding (the stopgap measure approved Thursday runs out Jan. 19.) Compromises on defense spending, healthcare assistance for children, and a stabilizing the troubled Obamacare healthcare markets also will take precedence.
With 51 Republican votes at best and virtually zero cooperation expected from the Democrats, McConnell is trying to set expectations low, despite optimism generated by approving the first tax overhaul in three decades.
McConnell predicted the Senate would tackle immigration, to legalize in some fashion illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents as children and participated in the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The legislation, he said, would include additional measures, probably involving border security, and be crafted such that Trump is willing to sign it.
McConnell was also optimistic about reforming the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul passed under former President Barack Obama. He said that Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, is sponsoring legislation to assist small- and medium-sized banks unfairly disadvantaged by Dodd-Frank. Importantly, Crapo’s bill has more than 10 Democratic co-sponsors, making it filibuster-proof.
The rapid pace of judicial confirmations to the circuit and district courts is one aspect of 2017 McConnell expects to continue in the New Year.
“It’s hard to imagine additional issues of the magnitude of comprehensive tax reform,” McConnell said. “But there are things we can [just] not as big.”