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“I’ve had no calls from Republican senators”: red-state Democrats were shut out of the tax bill

Senate Republicans don’t need Democrats to pass their tax bill. And they’ve been acting like it.

Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch Meets With Senators On Capitol Hill
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Republicans inched closer to the 51 votes needed to pass their sweeping tax bill on Tuesday. Using the process of budget reconciliation, Republicans don’t need Democratic support to pass tax reform. And they’ve been acting like it.

Throughout the tax bill process, red-state Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly — who are all up for reelection next year in states Trump won in 2016 — have repeatedly tried to reach across the aisle to Republicans on common tax goals, including cutting middle-class and corporate tax rates (albeit at a lower rate than Republicans are proposing). And while the Trump White House has made overtures to these Democrats on taxes, they’ve been frozen out by their Republican colleagues.

“I’ve had no visits in my office; I’ve had no calls from Republican senators,” McCaskill told Vox on Tuesday. “I’ve actually talked to Republican senators about working with them, and it’s very clear to me that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan decided they were going to do this the way they wanted to do it, which meant just with Republican votes.”

Instead, Senate Republicans have been fixated on whipping the votes in their own party. With a very thin margin of error and lots of competing demands on tax reform, Senate leadership and the president were busy cutting deals with key holdouts this week.

Details are still shifting on the final bill, but so far, the sweeping overhaul of taxes would reduce rates for corporations and individuals (although individual tax cuts would eventually expire). It also has dramatic implications for American health care, repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which would effectively kick 13 million people off their insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. There’s also a possibility the tax bill could trigger a $25 billion cut to Medicare.

After a visit from President Trump on Tuesday, it appeared Republicans were making progress gathering votes, with key holdouts Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) voting for the bill in committee and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) saying she was “optimistic” after hearing that Trump would support her demand that health insurance markets be stabilized.

The fact that Republicans aren’t even trying to make overtures to conservative Democrats is another way in which Congress works differently than it used to. The tax bill Republicans are considering is wildly unpopular with the public and has been lobbied against by key interest groups — and it has no bipartisan support. In years past, that would spell doom for a bill. But in a highly polarized Congress, where Republicans have control but no legislative wins to show for it, the GOP is determined to march full steam ahead on taxes, without any Democratic support.

So far, Manchin, Heitkamp, and Donnelly, who all have huge incentives to bolster their bipartisan credentials, haven’t definitively said whether they’ll vote for the tax bill. But they’ve made it very clear they aren’t happy with the bill’s contents or the speedy, secretive process with which it’s moved through Congress. Led by Manchin, 16 Senate Democrats and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine attempted a last-ditch effort at bipartisanship during a Tuesday press conference, appealing to Republicans to work with them.

Heitkamp said she’s still not a definite “no” on the tax plan, as key provisions keep changing.

“I’ve been asking all along what is it, and I still don’t know what it is. It’s still a moving target,” she told reporters.

A few months ago, Heitkamp flew on Air Force One and appeared with President Trump in her hometown of Mandan, North Dakota, where the president publicly pressured her to vote for tax reform.

“It can happen,” Trump said at the September rally. “Are you listening, Heidi? Yes, Heidi’s listening.”

At the time, Heitkamp issued a statement saying she was encouraged by Trump’s commitment to lowering taxes on working families and open to hearing more about the president’s plan, but added, “The devil’s in the details.”

But in the months since, she said, no Senate Republicans have reached out to her office on taxes. And at Tuesday’s press conference, the North Dakota senator had taken a noticeably different tone.

“We can do better in the Senate,” she said. “We can come up with bipartisan solutions to the problems that we see and to the agendas and policies that need fixing. We need to tell working-class people that they’re not going to get left behind and shoulder the burden unnecessarily and unfairly, of the tax structure.”

Right now, it’s clear that Heitkamp, Manchin, and other red-state Democrats don’t think the current Republican bill will do that. Democratic senators said the current Republican bill is so obviously weighted toward the wealthiest Americans that there’s no way they can support it. They are also upset that individual tax cuts would eventually expire, while corporate cuts would stay permanent.

“My god, I’ve tried to — we’ve done everything,” Manchin said in an interview Tuesday. “If you’re asking me to assume another trillion and a half dollars of debt, plus, tell me who gets the most benefit from that? I’m explaining to the West Virginians right now that this bill was not put together in a bipartisan way. The way the bill was put together by the leadership of the Republican Party is that corporations get permanent [cuts] and individuals get temporary.”

Manchin said he’s had numerous talks with the president and White House officials promising lower rates for middle- and working-class Americans, while not giving the wealthy dramatic cuts. But that’s not the plan Trump and Republicans have delivered, he added.

“What I’m hearing from the White House and what bills I’m seeing come across our desk are different things completely,” Manchin said.

Getting ready to board the Senate subway on Tuesday, McCaskill sounded even more incredulous.

“This is just a ruse to give a bigger handout to really wealthy folks,” she said. “The sad thing is, they have 70 votes for the taking. They could do permanent tax reform.”

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