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Tax Overhaul Caps What Congressional Republicans Say Is Successful Year

Members say legislative, regulatory and judicial victories overshadow health care setback

From left, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., John Cornyn, R-Texas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, are basking in their win on taxes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., John Cornyn, R-Texas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, are basking in their win on taxes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The GOP-led tax overhaul caps off a year in which, despite some high-profile setbacks, congressional Republicans scored a slew of key victories.

GOP lawmakers say the accomplishments provide ammunition against critics who questioned whether the party could effectively govern with full control of Washington, D.C., and give Republicans newfound energy going into an election year.

The tax measure checks off a number of long-held Republican priorities, including repealing a key part of the 2010 health care law and opening up parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. Senate Republicans this year also advanced a record amount of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees and overturned a number of regulations put in place by former President Barack Obama.

“It’s a pretty good record. Repealing a lot of over-regulation, confirming a lot of judges and passing something that hasn’t been done for 30 years,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said. “It’s a lot of good stuff to run on.”

Watch: Lawmakers Praise Trump in Rose Garden Tax Bill Celebration

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“I know that those people who are up for re-election are pretty jubilant right now,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said. “The year is ending very differently than when it started.”

Democrats argue the successes will be short-lived and say the tax bill and the Republican attempts to overhaul the U.S. health insurance system will backfire on the GOP.

“Our Republican colleagues will rue the day they pass this bill. It may be a means of checking boxes, but they will regret that they have checked these particular boxes,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said of the tax measure.

Despite repealing the requirement that individuals buy insurance or pay a yearly fine, Republicans will likely still face pressure from voters after failing to gut the health care law despite campaigning on that promise for the past seven years.

When asked, some GOP members say the tax bill provides some vindication.

“Arguably, doing away with the individual mandate makes the Affordable Care Act unworkable,” Cornyn said. “Hopefully this will precipitate a bipartisan negotiation on what we need to do as an alternative.”

Tax triumph

The Republican tax bill dramatically and permanently lowers the corporate tax rate and cuts taxes for wealthy Americans. The GOP hopes those two items, among others, will spur enough economic growth to pay for the overall package despite little evidence to support that claim.

While the bill is also expected to raise after-tax income for every income bracket in 2018, those cuts are temporary and the benefits grow more slowly over time — forcing a future Congress to act to fix the legislation.

Many Democrats aren’t yet willing to say whether they would help Republicans extend the cuts or provide their support to correct the problems they see in the current measure.

Watch: Schumer, Pelosi Slam GOP Tax Bill

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While GOP lawmakers predict substantial economic growth, several outside estimates say it could add nearly $1 trillion to the federal deficit. Such an increase could prompt future action from Congress and spur a heated argument between the two parties over spending.

“Let’s just hope there’s a time down the road that we’re allowed to work with Republicans around the tax code. We clearly were shut out of this process,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said. “If the debt continues to grow, our side of the aisle is going to be looking at this bill, their side of the aisle is going to be looking at Social Security and Medicare.”

The legislation will also open up a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, a decades-old goal for Republicans.

“Everybody looks at ANWR like an Alaska thing … but that’s been a goal of everybody since President Reagan,” Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said. “This is going to be historic.”

While Democrats were unable to block the bill, they messaged it as a giveaway for the rich at the expense of the poor. Public polling of the legislation has shown low approval, but even critics expect that could rise once the impacts are felt.

“The question is whether a couple of extra bucks every month erases the anger people are going to feel when they read stories about the millionaires, the president of the United States gaining hundreds of thousands of dollars, when they see the national debt climbing, when they see no additional jobs,” Blumenthal said.

Reshaping the courts, tweaking the regulatory landscape

Senate Republicans have also been working throughout 2017 to reshape the  the U.S. court system and tweak regulations. 

The chamber has confirmed 12 appeals court judges — a record number — in President Donald Trump’s first year. The positions are lifetime appointments and carry significant influence because appellate judges have the final say on the vast majority of cases that do not make it to the Supreme Court.

The Senate has also overturned 15 regulations put in motion during Obama’s presidency. Republicans argue that has helped the economy.

“The regulatory climate here has dramatically improved,” Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said. 

Democrats say that despite GOP rhetoric, the party has failed to govern effectively because they have advanced only partisan measures.

“They did everything but legislate, which is interesting for a legislature,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said. “It’s been the deadest year in the Senate floor than I can remember in all the time I’ve been here.”

Legislative victories — at least ones driven solely by the GOP — could be harder to obtain next year. The Republican majority in the Senate will shrink with the addition of Doug Jones, who pulled off a surprise victory in the Alabama special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat.

It is still unclear what the GOP’s top priorities will be. Trump has pushed for an infrastructure bill. That measure could obtain bipartisan support, but it could also spur a battle between the two parties over the federal debt.

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