Outlook: Tax Showdown in the Senate

GOP leaders are hunting for 50 votes for their tax reform plan—and starting to look ahead to December’s looming fights.

Sen. Jeff Flake speaks to aerospace workers about the current congressional tax reform proposal in Mesa, Ariz. on Nov. 17.
AP Photo/Bob Christie
Nov. 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

The House version of the GOP tax-overhaul bill is in the books. Now, all attention is on a tough Senate vote expected this week.

The tax-writing Senate Finance Committee approved its version of the tax bill just before the Thanksgiving break, sending the measure to the full chamber for a vote. It’s likely that there will be more changes to the bill to attract stray Republican senators to vote for it. The GOP can only lose two votes, and multiple senators have complained about some provision or another.

The House, meanwhile, still has a lot on its plate after Thanksgiving, with an omnibus spending bill and supplemental disaster funding due before the end of the year. But the chamber won’t turn its attention to that until after this week.

To the frustration of members who want to avoid last-minute spending cliffs, the must-pass appropriations bill will wait until December. Democrats, meanwhile, are still pushing to pass a bill granting legal status to immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were young and another to guaranteeing Obamacare payments to insurers. President Trump has said he will stop both programs if Congress does not act.

Instead, on the House floor this week will be a measure easing regulations on the purchase of manufactured housing and a bill raising the amount of time that some government workers can legally be on a probationary period before being hired full-time. The chamber will also vote on two environmental measures, one easing mining regulations on public land in Minnesota, and another that would authorize $250 million per year for grants to help clean up some polluted properties so they can be redeveloped.

Here’s what else is on tap:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Erik Prince, the Blackwater USA founder and informal adviser to President Trump, is scheduled to testify Thursday in an open setting before the House Intelligence Committee as it continues its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold three closed briefings throughout the week.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee is set to hold a hearing with outside experts Thursday on recommendations for a future national defense strategy.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

The House is slated to vote this week on a bill to revamp Environmental Protection Agency policy on cleaning up blighted, industrial properties. Members of the House rules panel will take the legislation up Monday night, and it could hit the floor any time after that. Bipartisan, bicameral support exists for an overhaul to the EPA’s brownfields program despite years of failures to do so. The Senate environment committee already signed off on a companion bill.

Meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the National Environmental Policy Act, a controversial law that many Republicans blame for the failure to manage forests in a way that prevents wildfires. On the Senate side, the debate over opening the Arctic for drilling may hit the floor alongside tax reform. The Senate environment panel will also hold a hearing on two nominations for Tennessee Valley Authority leadership.

The EPA will also conduct hearings on the Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration regulation over power-plant emissions—in Charleston, West Virginia on Tuesday and Wednesday. The EPA proposed a repeal of regulation last month.

HEALTH

Obamacare repeal is back on the table after conservative senators decided to entangle their tax-reform bill in the debate by including language to effectively repeal the individual mandate. Already one key swing vote, Sen. Susan Collins, has warned that the move has complicated the process, while another, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has said she supports the repeal.

To keep centrist Republicans onboard, leadership is looking to pass a bipartisan stabilization bill—negotiated between Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray—that would provide two years of key Obamacare subsidies to insurance companies. But Murray warned that this bill was not designed to address the chaos caused by repealing the individual mandate.

While Republican leaders will be working on moving their package through Congress, the Senate health committee will be considering Health and Human Services secretary nominee Alex Azar on Wednesday. The former Eli Lilly and Company executive is likely to field questions about his ties to the drug industry. On Thursday, the committee will be getting the perspectives of states, communities, and providers on the opioid crisis.

In the House, the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is having a hearing Wednesday to discuss the Department of Veteran Affairs’ failure to address provider quality and safety concerns. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s global health subcommittee is also holding a hearing to get a global update on Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday will get an update on the implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act from the leaders of the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

TAXES

When it comes to the fate of the Senate tax bill, the math is all that matters.

Already, one Republican senator, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, has said he wouldn’t vote for the bill as it stands because of its treatment of pass-through entities. And Collins has complained about the individual-mandate repeal.

One senator that leadership may no longer have to worry about: John McCain. After delivering the fatal blow earlier this year to the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, McCain said he wanted regular order on the tax process. In a Nov. 17 statement, McCain appeared to give his stamp of approval on the process, saying he was pleased that the Finance Committee had followed regular order by holding hearings and spending four days considering the bill and amendments.

Other senators to look out for include retiring deficit hawks Bob Corker and Jeff Flake.

If Republicans do put together 50 “yes” votes, the House and Senate versions move to a conference committee, where a select group of lawmakers will need to hammer out compromises on key differences between the two bills, chief among them the Senate’s full elimination of the state and local tax deduction. That provision is a nonstarter with many House Republicans from high-tax states.

Both House and Senate leaderships still plan on completing a tax bill by the end of the year.

TECHNOLOGY

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is making back-to-back public appearances in friendly venues this week, and his recent proposal to rescind the FCC’s net-neutrality rules will likely take center stage.

Pai will speak Tuesday at a joint luncheon hosted by the libertarian tech groups Lincoln Network and R Street Institute, and on Wednesday he will speak at the conservative Media Institute’s luncheon. Pai may be seeking to galvanize conservative and libertarian support for his controversial plan to roll back the FCC’s net-neutrality rules, which the commission will vote on during its open meeting on Dec. 14.

Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim will make a rare public appearance Thursday at a breakfast hosted by the Technology Policy Institute, and will almost certainly face questions on his office’s decision to sue AT&T over its planned acquisition of Time Warner. A DOJ complaint released last week said the merger would limit competition in the media space, but critics have charged that the unusual decision to challenge a vertical merger is being driven by President Trump’s antipathy toward CNN, a Time Warner subsidiary. Delrahim may also face questions on the proposed merger between conservative broadcast giant Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media, which requires sign-off from both the FCC and the DOJ.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has a packed week of hearings on tech and cybersecurity policy. On Wednesday, the subcommittee on communications and technology and the subcommittee on digital commerce and consumer protection will hold a joint hearing on tech companies’ use of algorithms and how those decisions about data and content impact consumers. On Thursday morning, the subcommittee on oversight and investigations will examine alternative ideas for consumer-identity verification in the wake of several high-profile data breaches, including Equifax. And on Thursday afternoon, the subcommittee on communications and technology will hold a hearing on legislation designed to crack down on online sex trafficking by increasing legal liability for online platforms where sex trafficking takes place. The Senate Commerce Committee passed compromise legislation on the issue this month, and the House subcommittee will likely look to reconcile the two legislative proposals.

WHITE HOUSE

After a long weekend of golf in Florida, it’s back to work for Trump this week for his push to pass tax cuts before the New Year. That will include attending Tuesday’s Senate Republican Policy lunch and a meeting with the Republican Congressional leadership. On Wednesday, he takes his tax pitch to Missouri. Also on his agenda for the week is a Monday meeting with Native American code talkers and, on Thursday, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

Brian Dabbs, Erin Durkin, Brendan Bordelon and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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