Republicans Seek a Vote on Obamacare Provision in Tax Extenders

The Senate’s controversial amendments process could claim another victim.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) participates in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform on Capitol Hill on April 22, 2013 in Washington, D.C. 
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
May 13, 2014, 7:09 p.m.

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.”

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