Long after midnight, following a chaotic scramble that saw tax legislation being re-written on the fly, with handwritten edits in the margins and full pages crossed out, Senate Republicans passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – a bill that would ultimately hike taxes on millions of middle-class Americans, swell the ranks of the uninsured by 13 million and explode deficits by $1.4 trillion in the first decade alone.
The winners in this bill are the Republican donor class: Corporations that would see their tax bills slashed by more than 40 percent – and get to bring home trillions in offshored profits at shamefully discounted tax rates as low as 7.5 percent; executives at companies with "pass through" earnings, who would get to deduct nearly a quarter of that income; heirs who would get richer from a doubling of the estate tax exemption, to $22 million for couples; and even private jet owners, who would get to deduct aircraft maintenance from their taxes.
With 51 Republican votes in favor of the tax bill, the final tally was close. Vice President Mike Pence wasn't needed for final passage – though he did show up to break a tie vote for an amendment allowing tax deductible savings to be spent on private and religious K-12 schools.
The only GOP "no" vote on the bill was Tennessee's retiring Bob Corker, who gets little credit for his resistance – days earlier, Corker had provided the pivotal committee vote allowing the bill to reach the floor. "I wanted to get to yes, Corker wrote in a statement. "But at the end of the day, I am not able to cast aside my fiscal concerns and vote for legislation" that he expects to "deepen the debt burden on future generations."
The vote followed a day of wheeling and dealing, set in motion after an estimate released by the Joint Committee on Taxation on Thursday gave lie to the GOP's claim that the tax plan would pay for itself by boosting America's GDP. Even JCT's "dynamic" scoring of the bill, which attempts to account for economic activity spurred by tax cuts, found it would cost $1 trillion over ten years.
Republicans first focused on trying to appease the deficit hawk, Corker – and considered reducing the corporate tax cut or adding a "trigger" that would reverse cuts if deficits swelled. But those talks foundered, and McConnell instead decided to buy off holdouts.
The final Senate bill increases the proposed tax break for pass-through income earners – a sop to Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Steve Daines of Montana. Susan Collins of Maine appeared to get the most for her vote. Collins made the bill marginally less awful by insisting on an amendment to allow Americans to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local property taxes. (That deduction had been fully eliminated in the first version of the bill.) And Lisa Murkowski of Alaska won a provision to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling – or, as Murkowski put it, to "responsible energy development."
Consider too the case of Sen. John McCain, who had made an impassioned plea for bipartisanship and "regular order" before he cast a deciding vote against the GOP health care bill this summer. McCain curiously found he could stomach both fierce partisanship and legislative chaos for a bill that cuts taxes for corporations and the wealthiest. "After careful consideration," he tweeted, "I have decided to support the Senate #TaxReform bill." (In an epic subtweet, former McCain 2008 campaign strategist Steve Schmidt wrote, "Every Republican member who has spoken passionately about out-of-control spending or the importance of a return to the regular order who votes for this appalling tax bill was simply conning the American people.")
In the mad dash to revise the bill, it turned into a Christmas tree full of gifts for special interests, according to Victor Fleischer, a respected tax professor at the University of San Diego. "Earmarks have mostly disappeared from Congressional spending bills," Fleischer tweeted, "but they are out loud and proud in the tax bill." One sweetheart deal appears to exempt a religious college in Michigan – supported by billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – from a new tax on college endowments.
The Senate bill was negotiated behind closed doors, with Democrats shut out entirely. "I saw that Corker's a 'no' and Collins is a 'yes' – and I don't know what they're a 'no' or a 'yes' on," Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy said on the Senate floor before the bill's final draft emerged. After Oregon's Ron Wyden expressed outrage that the bill couldn't be read before the vote, Sen. Majority Leader McConnell insisted Wyden would have "plenty of time" to read – afterwards.
In a dark moment for American democracy, Republicans voted unanimously Friday night against postponing a final vote until Monday, which would have given senators and the public a chance to read and analyze the 479-page tax bill. What other special interest gifts are lurking in the fine print? Who benefits exactly? Who knows?!
The last best estimate we're left with is the JCT scoring that shows that more than 80 percent of Americans wind up in 2027 with either a tax increase or a benefit of less than $100.
What happens now?
The House and the Senate have passed competing tax measures that are different in their details. The House bill, for example, fully eliminates the estate tax and punishes teachers and graduate students. (Read more about the winners and losers of the House bill here.) The Senate bill is the only version that eliminates the individual mandate in Obamacare, halting coverage for millions, and raising rates for those left in the system.
The bills may now head to a conference committee, where the two chambers could hammer out a synthesis bill. But given how unpopular the GOP tax plan is – as few as 1 in 4 Americans support it – a return trip to the closely divided Senate may prove problematic.
That means that the bill just passed under cover of night – the bill that nobody fully knows what's in it – could end up being adopted, as is, by the House, and sent to president Trump to be signed into law.
"This is not over yet," tweeted Senate Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon. "The House will still need to act on the Senate bill. It's up to every American who believes in the 'We the People' vision of our democracy to stop this bill before it gets to the President's desk."