Senate Republicans are planning to offer a spate of amendments on a bipartisan tax-extenders package, with a repeal of a medical-device tax chief among them, lawmakers said Tuesday.
The GOP effort comes as Senate Democrats are trying to renew several dozen tax provisions that expire at the end of the year. There's general agreement among lawmakers that passing the extenders benefits the public and businesses alike, despite the nearly $81 billion the package will add to the deficit. The legislation passed the Finance Committee on a bipartisan voice vote, and the Senate voted 96-3 Tuesday on a procedural motion to begin debate on the committee's bill.
But coming after the defeat of the bipartisan energy-efficiency bill this week, there are signs that the Senate's amendment process could claim another victim.
Majority Leader Harry Reid says he wants to see what Republicans will offer, and he did not commit to letting them offer any amendments, which has been a major source of tension in the chamber. Moreover, Reid has ruled Obamacare amendments out of bounds in the past and has said he is not concerned about the effect the tax is having on the medical-device industry.
"I'm not going to cry any big tears over the device folks," Reid said. "Their profits were huge last year."
The bill, called the EXPIRE Act, includes some 55 provisions, such as the Work Opportunity tax credit, which encourages employers to hire veterans, as well as the Research and Experimentation tax credit.
The medical-device provision places a 2.3-percent tax on the sale of devices and helps pay for the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion, according to Kaiser Health News. Repealing that provision could cost the government $30 billion in revenue over 10 years.
For Republicans, repealing the tax fits with their critique of Obamacare and offers an opportunity to suggest that Democrats are behaving hypocritically. Senate Republican leaders, for example, pointed to a nonbinding vote on repeal of the tax in March of last year that passed with the support of 34 Democrats.
"When it really matters, they're saying, "˜Oh, I don't think I want to take that vote,'" said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. "You're either for it or against it."
While Reid did not close the door on allowing amendments, Republicans don't sound optimistic that they will have a chance to pick their own measures, and they have begun to refer to their inability to get votes on their legislation as a Reid-imposed "gag order."
"Senator Reid, unless he woke up on the right side of the bed this morning, I don't think is going to change his position on amendments," said Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. "And that's really regrettable."
The legislation faces two more procedural roll calls with a 60-vote threshold, according to Republican and Democratic aides, meaning that the Senate won't likely finish the bill until next week. While the amendments process fueled partisan disagreements as recently as this week, it's still unclear whether enough Republicans will act to block the bill from ultimately passing.
"I just think there's enough support — there are 55 provisions," Cornyn said. "So everybody's got something in there that they like, and everybody's got something in there that they hate."
Even if the measure passes, the House is pursuing a different approach, taking up the extenders in piecemeal fashion. Cornyn said he expects the differences to be worked out between the chambers later this year.
While many lawmakers would like to see a broader overhaul of the tax system, they also admit that it's too challenging to undertake in the short window before the extenders expire at the end of the year. Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden is framing the bill as a "bridge" to a tax-code overhaul.
"Everybody knows our tax code is in bad shape," Wyden said. "It's complicated and opaque, and it needs fixing. The tax code should promote economic growth and treat everyone fairly. A lot of members of Congress have worked hard to develop ideas. But tax reform isn't happening tomorrow."