The Republican fight for a tax reform bill ended with the legislative equivalent of a rain delay Thursday.
After steeling themselves for a long night of voting on amendments and then the bill itself, Republican lawmakers pulled the plug shortly after dinnertime, unable to reach compromises necessary to hold the vote.
The new plan: to begin voting on amendments late Friday morning.
In effect, Republicans were buying themselves time to iron out the numerous kinks that remain in the sprawling legislation, which currently lacks the critical mass of GOP support for it to pass along party lines. But the delay underscores the pattern of ad hoc chaos that has characterized the hasty tax reform process.
Anxious to pass the bill before the end of the year and burdened next week by the deadline to fund the government to avoid a shutdown, Senate Republicans rammed the bill through committee in recent days. But this has alienated members of their conference who worry about the bill’s impact on the federal deficit — namely, lawmakers such as Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who have supported a so-called “trigger” provision that would offset the deficit impact by hiking taxes by a cumulative $350 billion down the road if economic growth under the bill proved lackluster.
A potential showdown along the lines of this intraparty division escalated on Thursday afternoon. Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, had put forth a motion that would have sent the bill back to the Senate Finance Committee for further evaluation. In normal times, this would have amounted to an inconvenient gimmick that Republicans, who have the majority, would have unanimously shot down. But as the vote went forward, three Republicans — Flake, Corker, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, another critic of the bill — assembled on the floor of the Senate chamber and delayed the vote for nearly an hour. Their message was clear: they weren’t happy with moving forward with the bill in its present form.
The Senate parliamentarian eventually interjected to rule that the trigger “isn’t going to work,” as Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn put it to reporters outside the chamber minutes thereafter. “So we have an alternative — frankly, a tax increase we don’t want to do, to try to address Sen. Corker’s concerns.”
Senate Republicans will spend Thursday night at the drawing board to try to find a compromise that will placate the deficit hawks, who are further agitated by a new report from the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, which determined that even with an optimistic outlook on the bill’s macroeconomic effects, the deficit would still climb by $1 trillion over ten years. Corker said that a tax increase looked like a viable alternative, but refused to offer specifics.
“You don’t want to defer to someone at the expense of making someone else who feels like they have an equally rational basis for a request,” Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina told reporters on Thursday afternoon. “One thing I know — there’s no way to compete in the finals if you don’t compete in the semifinals, and that’s where we are now.”
“It’s been pretty hard to make them happy so far,” a visibly weary Sen. Orrin Hatch said of the bill’s remaining Republican opponents. “We’re gonna keep working on it.”
Senate Republicans left the floor seemingly just as bewildered as the caffeinated members of the congressional press corps who had huddled outside. “It was dramatic,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, before admitting that she wasn’t sure if the trigger was officially off the table. “The problem with triggers is, if we go into a recession, is that really a time we want to raise taxes or cut spending?”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who had announced his support earlier on Thursday after some wavering, told TIME that he had “no idea” if a compromise was going to be reached.
“It’s not the most elegant of processes,” Collins said. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”
As debate for the evening waned, Senate Republicans gathered in a dining room off the Senate chamber to eat pizza trucked in by aides and discuss what would come next. All seemed exhausted. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell broke from his tradition of aloofness in the Capitol hallways to offer a platitude to curious reporters.
“It’s always interesting in the Senate,” McConnell said, with what was either a smile or a grimace.