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Key senators sold their votes on the tax bill for some high-risk deals

There’s no guarantee House Republicans will go along with the deals Susan Collins and Jeff Flake struck in the Senate.

Senate Lawmakers Address The Media After Their Weekly Policy Luncheons Al Drago/Getty Images

Compared to the last-minute Senate drama during the attempt to repeal Obamacare this summer, the GOP tax bill sailed through the chamber late Tuesday night.

Just like the health care vote, there were a small number of Republican senators who seemed like they might hold out. But unlike last time, Senate leadership managed to successfully cut deals with these senators to secure “yes” votes.

Chief among them were Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Bob Corker (R-TN). The three had different reasons for initially opposing the bill; Corker and Flake feared it would balloon the deficit by $1 trillion over the next 10 years, while Collins was most concerned about the provision in the tax bill that would kill Obamacare’s individual mandate and cause millions to lose their health insurance, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Ultimately, all three got to yes, with deals that won’t fix their original concerns. Collins got Senate leadership to commit to Obamacare stabilization. This ultimately ensures the federal government keeps paying for cost-sharing subsidies to help lower the cost of health insurance, but it won’t do much to mitigate the loss of the individual mandate.

Flake got himself a seat at the table for negotiations on an immigration deal, which won’t happen before the end of the year but could be voted on by mid-January. And Corker flipped from no to yes, simply because he decided the economic pros of the tax bill outweighed the cons.

In the case of Flake and Collins, there is no guarantee that conservative Republicans in the House will go along with the deals they’ve struck in the Senate — and no guarantee those deals will work.

Collins’s health insurance deal has a rocky path forward

Sen. Collins was one of the Republicans who helped kill the Obamacare repeal bill earlier this year. When the tax debate started, Democrats and tax bill opponents hoped she might do the same thing again, especially after Republicans added a repeal of the individual mandate into the bill’s text.

But that didn’t happen. Collins agreed to vote for the bill after cutting deals with Republican leadership, largely focused on mitigating the bill’s negative impact on health insurance.

Collins said she would vote for the bill as long as Republicans agreed to pass the bipartisan Alexander-Murray bill to attempt to stabilize the Obamacare exchanges by adding it to an end-of-year spending bill. The Maine senator also wants Republicans to commit to passing a bill that would waive a 2010 “pay-as-you-go” law. This law could automatically trigger a $25 billion cut to Medicare because the tax bill is projected to increase the deficit by an estimated $1 trillion over the next decade.

Collins thinks her agreements with Senate leadership are ironclad, as she told anti-tax bill activists last week. During a meeting with activists in her Senate office last week, Collins pushed back when some told her that her fellow Senate Republicans were lying to her.

“I do not believe that I’ve given up leverage,” Collins told activists. “I’ve used my leverage to negotiate agreements that are promises to me. I’m sorry that you don’t believe in the agreements.”

But there’s a major roadblock to Collins’s health care goals: House Republicans.

Republicans in the House have said that Collins made her negotiations with Senate leadership, not them. And they’re clearly feeling no obligation to play by her rules.

“No, we didn’t agree to that vote,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) told reporters on Tuesday, after the House passed the tax bill. “When one person has leverage over the House and the Senate, and the American people, something’s wrong with your Democratic system. That should not be happening on any issue.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was not involved in negotiations with Collins, and has previously opposed passing the Alexander-Murray proposal. He’s since received pushback from members of his conference, including top spending appropriators like Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who said House members aren’t obligated to follow through on promises made in the Senate. Leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have also said they don’t plan to support the provision to shore up Obamacare.

"You will not get the votes here,” Cole told the Hill’s Peter Sullivan earlier this month. “And we shouldn’t be passing something if you get 50 Republican votes and 180 Democratic votes. That’s not the way to pass something in the House that you control.”

When Collins was asked about this dynamic by reporters today, she went off on another tangent entirely, accusing the media of being “sexist” in their tax bill coverage.

Even if Collins is able to get conservative House Republicans on board with her plan to shore up Obamacare, it’s far from a done deal.

First, Alexander-Murray and Collins’s own health care bill will have to pass the Senate with 60 votes, meaning both Democrats and Republicans will have to agree on it. But even then, as Vox’s Sarah Kliff and Dylan Scott have written, there’s simply no guarantee these bills are going to fix the health care problems created by the tax bill.

As Scott wrote:

Alexander-Murray is best thought of as an attempt to mitigate the damage that Trump has already done to Obamacare’s insurance markets. But repealing the mandate in the tax plan would erode the markets even further, and this other bill doesn’t have any provisions designed to address that new harm.

Then there’s Collins’s own health insurance stabilization bill, which she wrote with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Kliff reported that independent analysis shows the bill would help reduce insurance premiums by about 4 percent in 2019 and 2020. But ultimately, it wouldn’t do enough to offset premium hikes created by the tax bill’s individual mandate repeal. As Kliff wrote, the Collins bill is like putting a “Band-Aid on a much larger problem caused by the Senate bill — one that it just can't fix.”

Flake is working toward an immigration deal

Sen. Flake’s vote was secured with a vague agreement on an immigration deal a few weeks ago. Flake used to be one of the key holdouts on tax reform, in large part due to his deficit concerns. But on December 1, the day the Senate passed its version of the tax bill, Flake assured Senate leadership he would vote yes if they made two concessions.

One was an agreement to phase out business expensing, a measure allowing businesses to write off the cost of new equipment, which Flake called an “$85 billion budget gimmick.” The other was an agreement from the White House and Senate leaders to negotiate on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (also known as DACA), an Obama-era program protecting about 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

In exchange for his vote, Flake was promised nothing more than a seat at the negotiating table on DACA — Republicans made no specific policy concessions and did not give a timeline for when an immigration deal agreement might happen.

“Giving protections for those kids — that’s what I hope comes out of it,” Flake told Vox at the time. “Obviously they can’t commit to do that, but they’ve committed to move forward with me and work with me on that.”

DREAMers are facing plenty of uncertainty in the coming weeks; the immigration bill’s fate is uncertain, and there are few clues as to what it could contain.

Earlier this month, Flake said he wanted to get a DACA deal done before the end of the year. At the same time, he knew it was unlikely the White House would agree to move so quickly.

Flake recently told Politico he believes he’s secured a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a vote on an immigration by mid-January. But there’s plenty of uncertainty about what that deal might look like, as senators themselves are waiting to hear what the demands will be from the Trump White House.

Corker’s change of heart

Sen. Corker, the lone Senate Republican who voted against the Senate’s tax bill earlier this month, made a surprise announcement he would support the final version late last week.

A last-minute change in the bill raised speculation that Corker’s vote was somehow bought off. The change extended a new tax break for pass-through businesses, like partnerships and LLCs, to real estate investors. Corker owns a substantial amount of commercial real estate and could benefit from the provision, a point that some news reports raised this weekend.

But Corker and other Senate Republicans have vehemently denied this is the case. Corker defended himself by saying he actually didn’t read the whole bill before changing his mind and deciding to support it, and therefore didn’t know about the provision benefiting real estate investors. Instead, he insisted that he thought long and hard about the GOP tax bill and whether the economic benefits would outweigh the deficit problems.

Ultimately, the Tennessee Republican decided he was satisfied, he told reporters.

“On one hand, you had the deficit issue. On the other hand, you had the economic growth issue,” Corker said. “I took a long walk on Friday morning and just decided that from the standpoint of, if I were the deciding vote on this … is our country better with this or not better with it? And I feel that we are.”

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