The near collapse of the GOP’s tax reform bill in the Senate on Thursday night was the latest debacle for a party that has struggled to govern this year. It suggests that the Republican Party may fail to enact a tax overhaul — or any other major legislation.
Republicans might still approve the bill on Friday, as party leaders are rushing to make changes to appeal to a handful of holdouts, particularly Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson.
But the bizarre scene on Thursday night, in which GOP leaders had to plead with those three senators not to back a Democratic effort to reject the bill and send it back to be rewritten in committee, was reminiscent of Republican struggles to repeal Obamacare.
Theoretically, Republicans could have written a tax bill that managed both to be popular and to unify the GOP. They didn’t. Instead, party leaders crafted legislation that both is unpopular and annoys some of their own members. It appears to be the same mistake they made in trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.
On the tax bill, Corker, in particular, is frustrated that the measure is projected to raise the deficit by about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. The Tennessee senator — who isn’t seeking re-election in 2018 and therefore isn’t under electoral pressure to vote a certain way — has been raising these objections for weeks. He wanted to add a provision that would potentially limit the the bill’s impact on the deficit, but the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the proposal violated the reconciliation rules under which this bill is being considered.
These details could all be fixed on Friday, or maybe soon after. But the broader picture is that Republicans, even if they find a way to get this bill through the Senate, have to reconcile the substantial differences between that version and the one passed by the House. That may sound simple, but like I said, Republicans in the Senate have had weeks to address the concerns of Corker and a few other reluctant members, yet they still find themselves scrambling to change this bill, hours before a potential vote.
Remember, Republicans had to get at least 218 votes in the House for that version of tax reform. Now, they need at least 50 votes in the Senate for this version. If the Senate passes a tax bill, the next step would be to get at least 268 senators and representatives to all agree on the same version of the legislation. Based on what we’ve seen this year, no one should be confident that moderate Senate Republicans, conservative Senate Republicans, the House Freedom Caucus, moderates in the House and individual mavericks in the Senate (like Corker and Arizona’s John McCain) will all agree on anything.
The Republicans have total control of the government. But almost a year into the Trump administration, they are struggling to actually govern.