WASHINGTON — Uncertainty gripped the Senate on Wednesday over efforts to pass a sweeping $1.5 trillion tax cut after a Wisconsin Republican became the first senator in his party to declare that he could not vote for the tax bill as written, and other senators expressed serious misgivings over the cost and effect on the middle class.
The House is set on Thursday to pass its own version of the tax bill, which would cut taxes by more than $1.4 trillion over 10 years and broadly rewrite the business tax code. But as with the health care debate earlier this year, the Senate emerged as the inconstant ally in President Trump’s pursuit of a major legislative accomplishment in his first year.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, came out against both chambers’ tax plans on Wednesday, saying that the bills favor corporations over small businesses and other so-called pass-through entities, whose owners pay taxes on profits through the tax code for individuals.
“These businesses truly are the engines of innovation and job creation throughout our economy, and they should not be left behind,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, neither the House nor Senate bill provide fair treatment, so I do not support either in their current versions.”
Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Bob Corker of Tennessee have voiced their own concerns about the tax overhaul and have not committed to voting for the tax bill.
“I’m still working with folks to see if there’s some way to be assured as it relates to the deficit issue that we’re not going to create harm,” Corker said. “There’s other senators who themselves want to ensure that we’re doing something to strengthen our country relative to the deficits.”
He added, “I’m not a yes, I’m not a no.”
With the likely success in the House, the fate of the overhaul fell into the hands of Republican senators, who grappled with the dangerous political prospects of passing a bill that critics said could undermine the health care system and favors companies over the middle class.
The Senate has played the spoiler before: The House passed a repeal of the Affordable Care Act in May, only
to see it fail in the Senate twice.
Republican and Democratic senators clashed on Wednesday over changes the Republicans had made to their tax legislation late Tuesday night, including adding a provision to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that most people have health coverage or pay a penalty. Republicans also made the tax cuts for individuals temporary, to comply with Senate procedural rules requiring that the tax plan not add to the deficit after a decade.
Senate Republicans, eager for a major legislative achievement, have generally been enthusiastic about the tax overhaul. But given the party’s slim 52-48 majority in the Senate, the reluctance of even a handful of Republican senators has left open the possibility that the tax bill will be further changed or face failure.
Beyond Johnson, the support of several other Republican senators was not assured, including the three who killed the party’s effort to repeal the health law this summer: Collins, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“I want to see the whole package before I make a decision,” McCain said.
On Wednesday, Collins expressed concern that middle-income consumers could see their tax cut erased by an increase in health insurance premiums caused by the repeal of the requirement that most people have insurance, known as the individual mandate.
Democrats attacked Republicans for inserting a repeal of the health care law’s requirement that most people have health insurance into the tax bill and for imposing a 2025 expiration date for individual tax cuts, while making the corporate tax cuts permanent.
“This bill seems to get worse by the hour,” said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “This is not just another garden variety attack on the Affordable Care Act, this is a repeal of that law.”
Repealing the health law’s individual mandate allows Republicans to save more than $300 billion over 10 years under their plan. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 13 million fewer people would be insured after a decade without the mandate and health insurance premiums would rise by about 10 percent.
Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, chairman of the finance committee, downplayed the move to make the individual tax cuts temporary, not mentioning that change in an opening statement in which he defended his party’s right to undo the mandate. He later suggested that Republicans would be unlikely to resist if Democrats wanted to help them make the cuts permanent after they expire.
“We’ll hear claims that the inclusion of the individual mandate tax relief is some kind of process foul and that we’ve somehow expanded the scope of the markup by including it in the modification,” Hatch said. “As we reiterated several times yesterday, the individual mandate is a tax.”
Hatch and Wyden raised their voices and spoke over each other as they clashed over the injection of health care into the tax debate, with Hatch at one point demanding that his leadership of the committee be respected.
“Let me be in charge of this committee, not you,” Hatch said.
The third day of debate over the tax bill in the Senate Finance Committee comes before an expected vote by the panel Friday. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill after Thanksgiving while the full House is expected to vote on its bill Thursday.
Another Senate panel, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, voted Wednesday to approve legislation that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling.
That legislation is to be merged with the tax bill, which Republicans are planning to pass using special procedures that protect against a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. Under that strategy, the drilling measure would share the protection from a filibuster.
Allowing drilling in the wildlife refuge, known as ANWR, is a longtime goal of the energy committee’s chairwoman, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska.
This summer, Murkowski was among the Republicans to vote against repealing the health care law, making her a closely watched figure as the Senate plunges back into a debate over health care.
Asked Wednesday about the repeal of the individual mandate, she showed no eagerness to discuss the subject. “My whole focus this week, you’re going to be shocked to know, has been ANWR,” she said.
With President Trump having returned from Asia on Tuesday night, the administration has been actively pressing members of Congress to put any differences aside and get behind the bill.