At long last, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got the votes.
Months after falling one vote short in his push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, McConnell, R-Ky., notched a major legislative victory – albeit preliminary – with the passage of the Senate GOP tax package in the wee hours of night as Friday bled into Saturday.
"This is a great day for the country," McConnell said while sporting an ear-to-ear grin as he took the podium following Saturday morning's vote. "We're going to take this message to the American people ... a year from now."
The vote is a temporary boon to McConnell as Senate and House Republicans ready to go to conference next week, but the bill's passage boosts McConnell's standing in the conference and provides a leg-up in future negotiations after showing he was able to win the votes.
"When you're the leader, you get all the credit and all of the blame," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the No. 2-ranking Senate Republican. "He certainly deserves credit for getting us here because it's not easy."
McConnell received blame for the multiple failed attempts to repeal the ACA, including the GOP's push for the "skinny repeal" in late July that was thwarted in part by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who made a dramatic "nay" vote on the bill. This time, McCain wasn't an issue, having announced his support for the bill Thursday morning.
McConnell and Republican leadership worked through Friday morning, following a delay Thursday, to seal "aye" votes on the legislation. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one the other Republicans who voted against repealing the ACA, got on board after a series of changes to the bill, including the ability for homeowners to deduct up to $10,000 of their state and local taxes. She announced her support Friday afternoon hours after McConnell declared that they "had the votes" or the bill.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who has had a contentious relationship with leadership dating back to his reelection victory last fall, pledged his support after he and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., secured an increase in deductions "pass through" businesses owners can deduct.
That left Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as two of the final holdouts (along with Collins). The two, both of whom are not running for reelection next year, are known as deficit hawks on and were concerned after the Joint Committee on Taxes projected that the bill will at $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years.
Flake said that he had repeated meetings and discussions with McConnell, Cornyn, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., one of the point-men on the tax reform push, that led him to vote in favor of tax reform. One thing Flake pushed for and said he received is assurances to work with Republican leadership and the administration on a legislative fix for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, although it remains to be seen what happens on that front.
"This is a big deal," Flake said. "There are no issues with his leadership .. This is a big deal, a big win for [McConnell]."
Corker was the lone Republican holdout on the bill. However, he doesn't fault the Republican leader, who he said negotiated with him in good faith and should be commended for his work on the bill despite his opposition.
"He's handled it very well. The tax writers have been very professional," Corker said. "This is actually a much bigger victory than [healthcare]. He's done an outstanding job. I don't know how anybody could disagree with that."
The push was time-sensitive too as the Senate landscape is set to change by the end of December when Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., a reliable vote for leadership, will depart and be replaced by either Democrat Doug Jones – which would reduce McConnell's majority to 51 votes – or Judge Roy Moore, the embattled former state supreme court chief justice who is accused of making unwanted sexual advances to teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
For months, McConnell has been bullish about the chances of a tax package being signed into law by Christmas, a point President Trump echoed in a tweet soon after the Senate bill passed. Perhaps, though, the greatest blessing for McConnell in this fight was that they were coming off the arduous and up-and-down healthcare debacle and that there was nowhere to go but up.
"Every meeting I had on healthcare was like a trip to get a root canal. Nobody wanted to be there," McConnell told the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council on Nov. 14. "On this issue, there's genuine enthusiasm. Everyone wants to get to yes."
Although final passage of a post-conference bill still could change things, McConnell was given some breathing room as he prepares for a spending fight and other legislative battles to finish out the year and kick off 2018.
"He's very, very good at what he does," Corker said. "He really is."