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Senate Tax Markup Will Be Spirited, but Don’t Expect Fireworks

Finance panel has more than 350 amendments to weigh over the next several days

Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden, left, and Chairman Orrin G. Hatch prepare to make opening statements during committee markup of the Republican tax bill Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden, left, and Chairman Orrin G. Hatch prepare to make opening statements during committee markup of the Republican tax bill Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday begins in earnest its markup of the Republican bill to overhaul the U.S. tax code.

Following opening statements Monday, the panel has more than 350 amendments to consider over the course of the next several days.

Looming over the debate will be a scheduled vote in the House on its own version of the tax bill that differs from the Senate measure in several drastic ways.

Among the most significant is the Senate’s decision to break with the House and fully repeal the state and local tax deduction, also known as SALT. That is not too surprising, given the Republican members of the Finance panel.

All hail from states where taxpayers claim an average SALT deduction that is lower than the national average of $12,500, according to data from the liberal-leaning Tax Policy Center. Of those states, Pennsylvania — represented by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey — has the highest average deduction at $11,200.



With battle lines drawn in both chambers, Republicans have tough conference negotiations awaiting them — assuming both the House and Senate can ultimately pass their respective bills.

All of this activity is being done under a very tight timeline that could be complicated by several outside factors. Those include the Dec. 12 election in Alabama for the remaining term of former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who resigned in February to become attorney general.

Senate Republicans aim to vote on the final tax legislation the week after the Thanksgiving break, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday. The GOP hopes to get a bill to the president’s desk by the year’s end.

No surprises

But don’t expect many fireworks in the Senate this week. Unlike the markup in the House Ways and Means Committee, which produced heated exchanges between Democrats and Republicans, public spats across the aisle in the Senate Finance Committee are far less common.

At the helm of the panel is the soft-spoken Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who routinely tries to keep some resemblance of collegiality during even the most contentious of hearings. He could also be especially vigilant in pursuing an orderly markup for the tax bill, given his long-term interest in the topic.

“We’ll hear that we’re rushing the bill through committee and that we haven’t had enough hearings. We’ll also likely hear about bills drafted in secret and Democrats being shut out of the process,” Hatch said Monday. “Virtually every proposal contained in the bill has been the subject of public debate for many years.”

Several GOP members during opening statements cited provisions in the Republican plan that received Democratic support in the past, such as lowering the corporate tax rate.

“There might be some specifics where we have some disagreements. But … this has never been partisan before,” Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said.

Watch: Who’s Getting to Write the Tax Bill?

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Resistance looms

The work over the next few days may be largely cordial, but that is not to say Democrats won’t be riled up. And there were glimmers of that Monday evening.

“What started out as a promise of a significant middle-class tax cut has become a multitrillion dollar bait and switch,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance panel. “There is a massive gap between the Republican rhetoric surrounding this bill and the reality of what is on paper.”

During the recent GOP attempt to gut the 2010 health care law, the minority party routinely brought up the topic in spirited monologues at unrelated hearings because Senate Republicans bypassed the committee process for the legislation.

As with its health care effort, the GOP is again using the fast-track budget mechanism known as reconciliation to try to advance the tax bill with only Republican support. This time, however, Democrats will have the opportunity to weigh in and potentially shape the final bill since it is advancing under regular order.

Expect Democrats to mount substantial resistance to the GOP attempt to repeal the SALT deduction, which predominantly affects those in high-tax states represented by Democrats. They are also expected to push amendments targeting, among other things, potential tax cuts for wealthy Americans. Those will likely not be substantive measures, but rather messaging proposals intended to force Republicans to take difficult votes.

A study released Saturday by the Joint Committee on Taxation will give GOP members of the panel ammunition for their arguments. The congressional scorekeeper found that in 2027, taxpayers in all seven income brackets under the Republican plan would see a reduction in their federal taxes, with the majority of the benefit skewed to the lower-income levels.

Beyond the expected resistance from the minority party, all eyes will be on Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri — one of a handful of Democrats who have been open to the possibility of ultimately supporting the legislation.

But McCaskill on Monday did not seem much closer to backing it.

“We have not been invited to the rooms where this bill was written,” she said in her opening statement. “We’re in such a rush to pass this tax bill with just Republican votes that I’m afraid we’ve overlooked some serious consequences for our states.”

The White House has targeted McCaskill and other Democrats up for re-election next year in states that Trump won in 2016, lobbying them during trips to the White House and dinners with top administration officials such as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

“I wasn’t invited because I happen to represent a state that he didn’t win,” Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell said of a recent meeting.

Meanwhile, outside the Senate Finance hearing room, nominations are expected to fill floor time in the chamber. The Senate could also vote on the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act conference agreement.

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