An embattled president trying pass controversial legislation is taken aback by a shock victory in a special senate election. What happens?
In 2010, Barack Obama and the Democrats didn’t rush their health care overhaul to get ahead of newly-elected senator Scott Brown, a Republican who won an upset in Massachusetts. Brown was in office for the next senate vote on the legislation, which he opposed—but it passed anyway, since Democrats still had 59 votes in the 100-member body.
This year, things are much tighter for Donald Trump, now that Doug Jones has won a special election to the senate in Alabama. Once he is sworn in, Republicans will only have 51 votes, while Democrats and the independents who caucus with them will have 49.
Since vice president Pence can break ties in the senate, the GOP can only lose two votes on any bill they are passing with a simple majority once Jones joins the senate. Senator Bob Corker already voted against the senate’s version of the bill because of worries about how much borrowing it includes. Meanwhile, senator Susan Collins says she wants Congress to enact new health care spending first, but house speaker Paul Ryan seems lukewarm at best on that deal.
Lawmakers are meeting in a conference committee to reconcile the differences in the House and Senate tax cut bills, and they hope to finish that up within days and vote on as soon as next week.
Rush the vote
Don’t count on Republicans to wait for Jones to be sworn into office to vote on the controversial tax bill. Even before Jones won, Republican leaders said they would wait to swear in Alabama’s new senator until the new year. It’s not uncommon for newly-elected senators to wait a week or two to enter the chamber, and Jones isn’t expected to take office until 2018.
That delay will give Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell an extra vote as he attempts to walk a fine line between members of his caucus who say they are worried about the $1 trillion or more in new debt in his bill, and those who say the tax cuts aren’t deep enough.
But, if the conference committee doesn’t deliver a compromise bill on time—and so far, this rushed tax bill has missed deadlines as negotiations have broken down—that could delay the vote until Jones arrives. On the other hand, that might be just the incentive Republicans need to get it over the line.
Read the writing on the wall
If Jones himself won’t be in chamber, will his electoral victory change the political calculus there? His victory in deep red Alabama, a state where 48% of voters approve of Donald Trump, should warn lawmakers of just how toxic the president’s political brand is becoming.
They may not have to worry about the kind of baggage carried by Jones’ opponent, Roy Moore, but they also will have to run in more moderate states. Nevada’s Dean Heller and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly in particular have plenty to think about. Many opponents of the bill are also looking to retiring senator Jeff Flake, who apparently did read the writing on the wall but has backed the tax bill so far, as a potential “no” vote.
The legislative calendar is about to get very busy, with Congress still undecided on how to fund the government into the new year, find money to pay for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and enact this unpopular tax cut bill. Perhaps Alabama’s voters have created an opportunity for a strategic pause.
But odds are still that the Republicans to pass their tax cut: They’ve already put enormous political capital into the bill already; their most important constituents, campaign donors, are demanding their share of 2016’s spoils; and most of them think it is the right thing to do.