ICYMI: “With Tax Overhaul, Susan Collins Stretches Her Political Powers”

“Maine senator’s gamble won changes that equal a tenth of the net $1.4 trillion tax cuts”

Click HERE to read the article in the Wall Street Journal.  The full article is below.

 

WASHINGTON - Maine Sen. Susan Collins earlier this year decided to stay in her job instead of running for governor because she thought she could play a decisive role at a consequential time for the Senate.  Last week, as her Republican colleagues inched toward passage of a $1.4 trillion tax bill, she tested that theory and brokered some of the most significant last-minute changes to the measure in exchange for her vote.

 

Ms. Collins managed to make changes equal to a tenth of the net $1.4 trillion tax cuts in the bill by preserving some tax deductions, expanding others and protecting a retirement-contribution exclusion, based on data from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

 

She won inclusion of an amendment that would return the medical-expense deduction to pre-Affordable Care Act levels for two years. She also got Republican tax writers to back down from an attempt to stop elementary-school teachers and others from putting more money into retirement accounts than what other types of taxpayers may set aside.

 

The biggest-ticket item was her battle to preserve a property-tax deduction of up to $10,000, the elimination of which would have brought in $148.4 billion in revenue.

 

The most challenging bit of horse-trading involved a willingness by Ms. Collins to accept that the tax bill would repeal the health law’s mandate that most Americans buy insurance or pay a penalty, a politically risky step that could cause premiums to rise for those who buy private health-insurance, based on Congressional Budget Office forecasts.

 

Ms. Collins, 65 years old, is perhaps the most high-profile example of what has become an important characteristic of the modern Senate: female lawmakers who, in an increasingly visible way, are putting their imprint on legislation and driving the political discussion. She is one of the few remaining swing votes in the chamber and she is comfortable using that leverage.

 

Democratic women are leading the crackdown on lawmakers accused of sexual harassment, most notably pressuring Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken to resign Thursday after several complaints emerged. Within the Republican caucus, another pivotal woman is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska.), who has chosen to shape legislation instead of going along with guidance from the all-male Senate Republican leadership.

 

“Historically, there haven’t been that many women in the Senate,” said Steven Smith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “Now, in the last few years anyway, it’s become almost routine to be thinking about them as pivotal or potentially pivotal votes.”

 

In exchange for her tax-bill vote, Ms. Collins won a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to support some nontax bills, including legislation to combat rising health-care premiums. Ms. Collins wants $10 billion for states over two years to set up high-risk pools designed to shift some of the cost of covering people with expensive pre-existing medical conditions to the government. She also wants passage of a bipartisan measure to restore funding to insurers that offset subsidies to help low-income consumers pay for copays and deductibles.

 

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the tax bill passed the chamber 51 to 49, with only one Senate Republican, Bob Corker of Tennessee, voting against it.

 

“After you’ve been there for a while, you realize how far you can go with your leverage,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.), a friend and former colleague of Ms. Collins. “You want to retain respect while still getting across your position. She does that very effectively.”

 

The legislation must face final passage in both the House and Senate, and Ms. Collins said she is “not making a commitment on the tax bill” produced by a joint conference committee. Republicans could lose her vote and still pass the legislation, assuming no other GOP senator switches positions, a newly elected senator from Alabama backs the measure and Vice President Mike Pence casts a tiebreaking vote.

 

But she said she is confident President Donald Trump will help deliver the package of commitments she secured by persuading House Republicans to vote for the health measures she demanded. “I believe the president will be able to bring the House along,” she said.

 

Hard-line House Republicans like Rep. Dave Brat (R., Va.) say that won’t happen. “To put a major wrinkle in health policy, and one-fifth of the economy in exchange for a tax vote, I don’t think you can run that in the light of day,” Mr. Brat said. He had one word for Ms. Collins’s influence: “Disproportionate.”

 

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) said Thursday that he wasn’t part of the discussions with Ms. Collins, but he left open the door to passing legislation similar to the bills she is pushing. “She’s put some very productive, constructive solutions on the table,” Mr. Ryan said.

 

Ms. Collins, who once served as an intern for a former Maine senator, served as the financial regulation commissioner in Maine and the New England administrator of the Small Business Administration. A political moderate, Ms. Collins won election to the Senate in 1996 with less than 50% of the vote. The Almanac of American Politics at the time wrote that she “brings to the Senate little experience in elective office” and has “not shown great vote-getting prowess.”

 

Two decades later, Ms. Collins has built a loyal base in Maine and has won re-election by comfortable margins despite a penchant from veering from the party line.

 

“Boy, are you tough,” Mr. Pence told Ms. Collins on the Senate floor this summer when she, along with Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Ms. Murkowski, resisted entreaties to vote to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The GOP health plan failed in dramatic fashion by one vote.

 

Mr. Trump personally lobbied Ms. Collins to support the tax bill, meeting with her in the vice president’s office in the Capitol to hear her concerns, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). It was an important gesture by the president and recognition of her stature, given that Ms. Collins didn’t endorse Mr. Trump last year.

 

Ms. Collins has a narrow road to travel in her negotiations on the tax bill, one pocked with pitfalls. She must weigh the potential risks to her voters with the political fallout to the Republican Party if it doesn’t have something to show for the first all-GOP control of Congress and the White House in a decade. Protesters have swarmed her offices to pressure her to vote against the tax bill. Republican leaders are pressing her in the other direction.

 

A key for her final deliberations will be whether Mr. McConnell can show that he can deliver on his promises to support legislation to combat rising health-care premiums, including billions for states to set up high-risk pools.

 

“She said she got promises of those things, but she voted before the promises came through,” said Sandy Maisel, an American government professor at Colby College in Maine.