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John Cornyn doesn’t have a good answer on tax bill loophole that means millions for Corker and Trump

“What we've tried to do is cobble together the votes we needed to get this bill passed.”

Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) on Sunday said the decision to include a provision in the Republican tax plan that would personally enrich some GOP lawmakers and President Donald Trump came from an effort to “cobble together the votes we need to get this bill passed.” Not exactly a moment of putting country over party.

In a Sunday appearance on ABC’s This Week, Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, was asked by journalist George Stephanopoulos about an International Business Times (IBT) report, which saw Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) switch from a “no” vote to a “yes” after a certain provision that would boost his real estate income was added to the tax bill.

The GOP’s tax bill, which has been in progress for weeks, would permanently slash the corporate tax rate, offer temporary cuts for individuals, and repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate, a maneuver that could leave as many as 13 million more people uninsured by 2027. It would disproportionately benefit corporations and the wealthy, hurt the poor, and increase the national deficit.

The Corker provision, which was not part of either the House or Senate tax bills, would allow the owners of large real estate holdings through LLCs to deduct a percentage of their “pass through” income from their taxes.

Pass-through businesses are companies organized as sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLCs, or S corporations that don’t pay the corporate income tax and instead are taxed at individual rates. Currently, the top tax rate for the top bracket of earners is 39.6 percent. The combined House-Senate bill allows people to deduct 20 percent of pass-through income from their taxes. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews has a full explainer on pass-throughs.)

According to the IBT report, the omnibus bill also adds in a special tax cut to LLCs with few employees and large amounts of depreciable property assets — namely, real estate, rent-generating apartments, and office buildings. Just like the kind Trump and a number of GOP lawmakers own.

IBT previously reported that the 13 GOP lawmakers sculpting the bill have between $36 million and $136 million worth of ownership stakes in real estate-related LLCs. Corker has told news outlets he didn’t know about the provision and never saw the text of the actual bill.

Corker on Sunday wrote a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asking how the provision wound up in the final bill in the first place. He said he had received a call from a reporter about the issue, and the “suggestion was that it was airdropped into the conference without prior consideration” by the House or the Senate. “Because this issue has raised concerns, I would ask that that you provide an explanation of the evolution of this provision and how it made it into the final conference report,” he wrote.

Hatch responded to Corker on Monday, saying he was “disgusted” by press reports on the provision. He said that Corker had nothing to do with the decision to include it and that the House bill had a similar provision. He did deny its benefits to the real estate industry.

Among the other beneficiaries of the new tax bill is Jared Kushner, who has also built his fortune in real estate. Per the IBT:

The Trump organization and the Kushners (the family of Ivanka's husband, Jared) have overseen vast real estate empires, and top GOP lawmakers writing the tax bill collectively have tens of millions of dollars of ownership stakes in real-estate-related LLCs. The new tax provision would specifically allow owners of large real estate holdings through LLCs to deduct a percentage of their “pass through” income from their taxes, according to experts. Although Trump, who became famous for his real estate holdings, has transitioned into branding in recent years, federal records show Trump has ownership stakes in myriad LLCs.

When pressed on the provision’s inclusion by Stephanopoulos on Sunday, Cornyn said Republicans “probably could have made [the bill] better,” but placed the blame for that on Democrats, saying they have not participated in writing the bill — although they weren’t really invited to contribute in the first place.

Cornyn repeated Corker’s line that there’s just so much in the bill it’s impossible to keep up. “Picking out one piece in a 1,000-page bill and saying, ‘Well, this is going to benefit somebody,’ I just think that takes the whole bill out of context,” he said.

The Texas senator also acknowledged that getting the votes for the bill has been a negotiating project to get single senators on board. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Ron Johnson (R-WI) have gotten or attempted to get specific concessions in exchange for their votes. For them, the bill represents a chance to get some of the issues they care about — the child tax credit, health care, oil drilling, pass-throughs — addressed, as well as the opportunity to say they’ve passed tax reform, a golden goose for many Republicans. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the final version of the bill on Tuesday, and it’s probably going to cross the president’s desk this week.

Update: Story updated to include letters between Corker and Hatch.

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