Around 5 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, as the Senate was voting for a third time on a Democratic motion to send the Republican tax bill back to the Finance Committee, a reporter came out from the sparsely populated press gallery and noted how odd it was that several Republicans were withholding their votes. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who had yet to register his vote, was holding court in the well of the chamber surrounded by the entire leadership team, who didn’t look happy. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson had also refrained from voting.
Soon, the gallery was mobbed. Though Republicans eventually got their way on the motion, it was only after a tense half hour of discussions between competing factions.
A bill that once seemed primed to sail through the Senate suddenly has a problem.
Surrounding Corker on the Senate floor were leadership figures like Sens. Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, John Barrasso, and John Thune. But Corker spent much of the time arguing with Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey, an ardent supply-sider who’s been frustrated with Corker’s efforts to install a “trigger” to recoup revenue if the tax bill doesn’t vastly grow the economy. Other members, like Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman came in and out of the huddle. Corker at one point walked over to the Democratic side to speak with Maine Sen. Angus King, on whose motion they were voting. McConnell separately walked over to Johnson, who has his own set of concerns with the bill.
The telling moment was when Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, joined the discussion and began to answer their many questions.
The problem with the bill is the “trigger,” Cornyn confirmed once the vote was finished. It is worth noting that the public still has not seen any iteration of this “trigger” that Corker and Flake have been devising. But it may not matter anymore: The trigger, Cornyn said, has been disallowed by the parliamentarian under the Byrd Rule, which governs what’s allowed to pass with just 50 votes under reconciliation rules.
“It doesn’t look like the trigger’s going to work, according to the parliamentarian,” Cornyn told a flood of reporters when he exited the chamber. “So we have an alternative—frankly, a tax increase that we don’t want to do—to try to address Sen. Corker’s concerns.”
Cornyn added, later, that the poor dynamic score the Joint Committee on Taxation had released earlier in the day, which showed the tax cuts wouldn’t nearly pay for themselves, was Corker’s impetus. Corker “latched on” to those numbers, he said. When I had seen Cornyn earlier in the afternoon, he told me that committee's score was "pretty clearly wrong." Corker, it seems, disagreed.
In other words, to appease the deficit hawks and satisfy the parliamentarian, Republicans may have to formally include a tax increase into the bill, perhaps toward the end of the bill's 10-year window. It’s unclear whether those increases would be corporate or individual taxes, or some combination. Either comes with problems. If a tax increase on corporations is levied in five or so years, corporations will gripe about how this lack of “certainty” frightens them from making any investments. If the tax increase is put on individuals... then Republicans are putting a tax increase on individuals. (In addition to the one they’re already facing in the current version of the bill, which allows the individual cuts to sunset.)
Most Republicans will argue that these additional tax increases would never see the light of day, because they will just erase them later—when Corker and Flake are retired. That may or may not be true. But that caveat won't show up in ugly distribution tables showing tax increases down the road, and it certainly won't blunt a harmful talking point heading into next year's midterms.