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    Shaking off distractions from the White House, Senate GOP edges closer to a tax vote

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks with reporters after leaving a tax reform news conference in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
    Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks with reporters after leaving a tax reform news conference in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

    WASHINGTON — Weeks of jockeying and negotiations over a historic tax overhaul came closer to paying off for Republicans Thursday, but a last-minute report that the legislation would significantly swell the deficit tempered their optimism as they aimed to push it through the Senate this week.

    GOP holdouts including Arizona Senator John McCain and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski announced they would support the conservative tax plan, which promises to dramatically cut rates for wealthy individuals and corporations in hopes of stimulating the economy.

    But the good mood was cooled late in the day after Republican senators received some bad news from the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, an official numbers-crunching body of Congress: The bill would add $1 trillion to the federal deficit, meaning the measure will not live up to sponsors’ promises that it pays for itself by creating economic growth.


    The new report triggered a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations over whether some of the tax cuts should be reversed in the future if those huge deficits indeed materialize.

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    Polls show both the House and Senate tax bills are deeply unpopular, but Republicans are setting aside public opinion in an ideological quest to slash taxes, which, despite most expert opinion, they contend will dramatically boost job growth and wages. They also are desperate to chalk up a major legislative win for President Trump after a frustrating year of failed promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

    “We’re on the cusp of a great victory for the country,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who was skewered by Trump-loyal Republicans after a series of political failures during the debate over repeal of the health care law.

    The Senate was expected to go back into session Friday morning. After a vote in the Senate, the bill likely would head into negotiations with the House, which has already passed its own tax-cutting plan.

    “We’re going to the homestretch heading towards the finish line,” McConnell said at a Thursday rally with other Republican senators. “What’s in this for small business and for the American people? Tax relief. An opportunity to hire more people and to get the growth rate up.”


    Throughout the Senate hallways Thursday, conservative lawmakers were oozing with similar confidence. Republicans finally believe they are close to a signature achievement — and to silencing their critics.

    “It’s time for us to saddle up and ride,” said Louisiana Republican Senator John N. Kennedy. “It’s time for us to go vote in front of God, the country, and the taxpayer.”

    Democrats are poised to take advantage of what they see as the downsides of the legislation. The newest nonpartisan government studies of the plan found people making $40,000 to $50,000 would pay a combined $5.3 billion more in taxes by 2027. Over that same time, the joint committee found, the group earning $1 million or more would get a $5.8 billion cut.

    Still, Republicans involved in last-minute negotiations ducked in and out of back rooms and fielded questions about the merits of the plan. This stood in stark contrast to the health care repeal debates of the summer, where Republican attempts to achieve a 50-vote majority came with agonizingly awkward scenes of lawmakers disagreeing in public, and even on the Senate floor.

    Buoyed by news that other previous skeptics including Maine Senator Susan Collins, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker also seemed to be edging toward supporting the tax overhaul, stock markets closed at record highs Thursday. Corker remained skeptical about the deficit numbers.


    A statement from McCain, who had been undecided until Thursday, said, “This is not a perfect bill, but it’s one that would deliver much-needed reform to our tax code, grow the economy, and help Americans keep more of their hard-earned money.”

    Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who joined with McCain and Collins to sink the repeal of the Affordable Care Act earlier this year, confirmed she would vote “yes” in the Senate basement Thursday afternoon.

    “We wanted to make sure that everything was in alignment, and we have done that,” she said.

    The central thrust of the conservative legislation is that lowered taxes for individuals and corporations — specifically those that are wealthy – would result in increased growth down the economic ladder. However, the bill also includes a potpourri of other conservative pet causes, including a new tax for elite colleges on income from their endowments, a reversal of the 1954 ban on political activism by churches, and eventual tax increases for poor and middle class Americans.

    “This isn’t even a tax bill,” said Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat. “This is a grab bag of special interest goodies and that stuff for multinational corporations and donors.”

    Liberal tax analysts agreed. Andy Green, the economic policy researcher for the Center for American Progress, said he would not call the bill “tax reform,” but a wealth transfer.

    “This bill raises taxes on middle and working classes to pay for tax cuts for the largest corporations, and in particular, for the largest corporations to ship jobs and invest overseas – not in America,” Green said.

    Green and other left-leaning economists, in assertions that have been borne out by studies, say corporations will use tax-cut windfalls to buy back stock and give corporate leaders pay increases — not invest in the economy.

    “It would be one thing to say borrow money to build a transit system or buy roads, but this is going to nothing,” Green said. “This is a large and direct wealth transfer.”

    In a briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not talk specifically about the report from the Joint Committee on Taxation that projected the bill would add $1 trillion to the deficit.

    “The president laid out his priorities. We feel like the plans, as of right now, from the House and Senate, meet those priorities of cutting taxes for the middle class, simplifying the tax code, bringing business back home,” Sanders said. “Those have been the big focus of the administration.”

    The president has hosted lawmakers at the White House, pressured some in person this week on Capitol Hill, and traveled to Missouri to hold one of his trademark rallies to fuel support among the base of loyal Republicans.

    But Trump has also distracted from the tax overhaul push, showing how hazards still lie ahead. Just before he headed to Missouri, he started an international war of words when he retweeted several videos from a leader of Britain First, a racist, anti-Muslim group whose members have committed acts of terrorism.

    Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@
    . Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley