Senate Republicans are racing to approve tax bill but unclear if they have the votes

PHOTO: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (C), with Senate Finance Committee Republican members John Cornyn (R) and Patrick Toomey (L) delivers remarks to the news media after a meeting on tax reform in Washington DC, Nov. 27, 2017.PlayShawn Thew/EPA
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Senate Republicans are racing to approve their tax overhaul, with a possible floor vote as early as Thursday. But it's unclear if they have enough support.

Several pockets of Senate Republicans continue to raise different sets of objections to key aspects of the bill, setting up a potential seesaw process in which concessions to some senators arouse opposition from others.

With 52 seats, Senate Republicans can lose no more than two votes to pass the tax legislation, which is being considered under a process known as reconciliation that requires a simple majority for approval.

But at least seven senators have publicly voiced qualms about key parts of the bill, presenting a difficult challenge for Senate GOP leaders. Republicans hope to get a tax bill to President Donald Trump to sign before Christmas.

“I think in the end we'll get the votes. But it's a process and -- a legislative process. It takes time to move it across the finish line,” Sen. John Thune, the third-highest ranking Senate Republican, said in a TV interview Sunday.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch is among those in the leadership working with members to address their concerns.

The defining features of the Senate bill that distinguish it from the House version include its repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate; the elimination of all state and local tax deductions for individuals; and the preservation of other popular tax deductions including charitable giving, student loans and medical expenses.

Like the House bill, the Senate bill doubles the standard deduction for individuals and expands the child tax credit. Both bills would also increase the federal deficit by a projected $1.5 trillion.

Concerns about the deficit, health insurance and small business

One group, including Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, both of whom have announced they are not running for reelection, and Sen. James Lankford are all concerned that the bill’s price tag could lead to expanded deficits over the long term. Supporters of the tax measure counter that the tax cuts will lead to a level of growth that will more than make up for the bill’s cost.

“As conservatives, we've said for a long time, if we're ever going to get ahead of the deficit, we have to control our spending,” Lankford said at a press conference Monday.

Spokespeople for Corker and Flake both said they still have concerns as well.

Sens. Jerry Moran and Susan Collins have said they would prefer the Senate bill not seek to repeal the Obamacare individual mandate, which they said should be dealt with separately.

“I personally think that complicates tax reform to put the repeal of the individual mandate in there,” Collins told reporters before the Thanksgiving recess.

Collins has also advocated for allowing individuals to deduct up to $10,000 in local property taxes, a provision which is in the House bill but not the Senate version, according to the Washington Post.

Another group of senators, consisting of at least Sens. Ron Johnson and Steve Daines, objects to the way the Senate bill might in some cases grant more relief to corporations than to other, typically smaller businesses that file for taxes under the code for individuals.

Still optimistic

Corker and Johnson both sit on the Senate Budget Committee, which will take a small but significant step Tuesday by merging the tax bill with a revenue-raising measure that allows drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Either senator could use their platform on the committee to rail against what they see as the bill’s shortcomings or even to block it. Neither has indicated what they plan to say or do.

Daines tweeted that he and President Trump spoke about his concerns over the weekend.

A spokeswoman said Daines is “optimistic that [Senate leaders] will come up with a solution to address these concerns” but later confirmed that he would vote against the bill in its current form.

The two chambers would still have to merge their final measures in what’s known as a conference committee to come up with a bill that satisfies both the House and the Senate. But that process is a moot point – and it becomes a lot harder to get a bill to the president’s desk by Christmas – if the Senate can’t muster up the votes to approve its initial draft.

As Sen. Hatch was leaving a White House lunchtime meeting Monday on the tax overhaul, he was asked if Congress would meet the GOP goal of getting legislation to the president before Christmas.

“I hope so!” he responded.

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