Republicans in the House and Senate are racing to pass a massive tax bill before leaving D.C. for the holidays, and after a week of closed-door meetings and backroom horse trading, they unveiled their final draft at the age-old hour of Washington news dumps: 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
The latest iteration of the sweeping tax overhaul looks significantly different than the versions that came out of the House and Senate earlier this month. Many of the most controversial pieces of the bill have been removed. Some tweaks have been made to further benefit the wealthy and certain members of Congress. And while the vast majority of GOP lawmakers are lining up behind the bill and promising to send it to President Trump’s desk before Christmas, a few absences due to illness and a few last wavering Republicans in the Senate are making leaders sweat.
Here are the five points you need to know before the House and Senate vote on the final bill next week:
Some (but not all) of the most controversial provisions were stripped out
Thanks to changes made in the conference committee over the past week, the GOP tax bill will no longer tax graduate students on the value of their scholarships or kill the 50-year-old ban on churches engaging in partisan politics, and will preserve deductions or credits for student loan interest, major health care expenses, adoption, and teachers’ school supplies. Republicans also backed away from fully repealing the estate tax, though they significantly increased the exemptions for inherited wealth, and they decided to cut the tax credit for rare medications in half rather than repealing it entirely.
“The Senate bill fixed a lot of problems that could have hurt us in the midterms,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told reporters late last week. “We added back the medical deduction for those who have very serious things, like a spouse who’s at home instead of a nursing home, or a kid with muscular dystrophy.”
Several of the most controversial provisions from the original House and Senate bills, however, remain. Most significantly, a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which is expected to increase the number of uninsured Americans by at least 13 million.
Marco Rubio won some concessions for working parents
On Friday, after threatening to vote against the tax bill over concerns that it was not generous enough to working parents, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) secured a slight increase in the refundable portion of the child tax credit—from $1,100 to $1,400 per year.
Rubio had originally demanded that the credit be increased to $2,500 per child and that the income threshold be lowered all the way to zero, allowing the poorest families to receive more of a benefit. But the final legislation will not touch the threshold at all.
Rubio indicated Friday that he was pleased by the change and will vote yes this week.
But there is still much more to do in the months and years to come. The progress made on the Child Tax Credit would not have been possible without the support of @SenMikeLee, @SenatorTimScott, and @IvankaTrump.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 15, 2017
Susan Collins will likely be voting in the dark
In the Senate, many bills live or die at the pleasure of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), but with promises to vote yes from former holdouts like Rubio and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) all but guaranteeing the tax bill’s success, Collins may have lost much of her leverage going into the vote on final passage.
The Maine senator voted for the GOP tax bill earlier in December after securing promises from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that Congress would pass three separate measures she says would mitigate the damage done by the repeal of the individual mandate. (Several studies have found that while the policies might prevent some of the large insurance premium hikes caused by nuking the individual mandate, they would do nothing to fix the large increase in the number of uninsured Americans or the threat of “bare” counties with no insurance options on the individual market.)
Collins has moved the goalposts several times since making these demands—first saying they had to pass before the Senate took its first vote on the tax bill, then saying they had to pass before the final tax bill came back from the conference committee, then saying they had to pass before the end of the year. Now, according to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and other influential House members, action on Collins’ health care priorities will likely be put off until next year, long after she has to decide whether or not to vote for the tax bill. And now that Republicans no longer need her vote to get the bill across the finish line, it’s unclear whether the health care stabilization policies will be taken up at all.
Collins told TPM on Thursday that the Senate would vote to insert the provisions into the end-of-year spending bill, but refused to answer what she would do if the House voted to strip them out.
“You know, I’m really tired of the cynicism of the press,” she said. “Why don’t we wait and see what happens?”
Corker jumped on board even though his deficit concerns were ignored
Over the past few weeks, many senators have flipped from no to yes on the tax bill in exchange for promises of questionable value. Rubio got $300 more in child tax credits, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) got an invitation to negotiations on DACA, and Collins got shaky promises on three future health care policy votes. Corker, the only GOP senator who voted no the first time around, announced Friday that he would vote yes despite have secured no changes to address his concern that the bill will explode the federal deficit.
“If we’re adding one penny to the deficit, I am not going to be for it, okay?” he declared in an interview in October. “I’m sorry. It is the greatest threat to our nation. The greatest threat to our nation.”
Though most GOP lawmakers confidently declared that the bill would stimulate so much economic growth that it would pay for itself, studies by government economists, independent think tanks and universities found that it would add a minimum of $1 trillion to the deficit. Even Trump’s Treasury Department admitted in a one-page report that the cuts alone will not pay for themselves, and would have to be coupled with deep cuts to the social safety net in order not to increase the deficit.
Now, though Republicans have made no significant changes to address the cost of the bill, Corker is a yes.
“This bill is far from perfect,” he wrote in a statement. “But after great thought and consideration I believe this a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss.”
Yet Corker may have had a different motivation to back the bill. A provision added in the conference committee would benefit him personally—a tax break for real estate holdings—though Corker insists he did not know about the sweetener when he agreed to vote yes.
Democrats had no input
The tax bill is likely to pass without a single Democratic vote, and lawmakers in the minority party say they have had no opportunity throughout the fast-tracked process to have any say on the policy.
Republicans held no hearings on the bills, jumping right to the markup stage before holding a vote and convening a conference committee. At the one public conference committee meeting, last Wednesday, the GOP chair would not allow any Democrats to propose amendments or motions, prompting outcry from Democrats who compared the proceedings to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and communist Cuba.
“I kind of felt like a prop there,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a member of the conference committee, complained to TPM. “I thought we were going to be participants in this discussion. But to Republicans, it was just a box that needed to be checked off. The reality was that there was nothing we could change and nothing we could have an influence or make an argument on. Frankly, I think it was worthless.”
On Friday, long after the details of the final bill had already been hashed out between Republicans, Democrats were allowed to view the legislation, a few hours before it was released to the public.
Before Friday morning, Grijalva said, he had only heard information about what was in the new bill “from you guys, from the press.”