Political News

GOP Finally Notches 2017 Victory While Bracing for 2018 Verdict

Posted December 20, 2017 2:19 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — It was an unsightly and painful yearlong slog, but Republicans are finally getting what they so desperately craved — a major legislative victory in the form of a consequential tax overhaul.

By coupling a substantial corporate tax cut with an assortment of naked appeals to undecided lawmakers, Republican leaders pushed their tax bill through Congress on Wednesday, touching off a self-congratulatory tidal wave by a party that had struggled mightily through nearly all of 2017.

After an embarrassing inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act — a core promise by congressional Republicans since 2010 — Republicans knew they had no choice but to deliver a tax package or face repudiation by their voters and campaign donors.

“Our attitude from the beginning was failure was not an option,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 3 House Republican and the party’s chief vote counter.

But even as they closed in on what they celebrated as a historic triumph, Republicans found another creative way to stumble. A challenge to the House-passed measure by Senate Democrats discovered three provisions — including the very title of the bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — that violated special Senate rules being used to skirt a filibuster. The flub necessitated the formality of a second House vote on Wednesday.

Republicans said the bill would prompt an economic boom sufficient to offset a projected explosion in the federal deficit, create jobs, raise wages and even contribute to national unity.

“This is a new beginning, if you will, and a time for America to really forge a path of leadership in this new century that provides a better quality of life and a higher standard of living for American families,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican.

Congressional Democrats — who all rejected the measure — predicted a severe political backlash. They are itching to pound Republicans for what Democrats consider to be an ill-timed and ill-conceived giveaway to the rich by a party and a president who promised to intercede for the working class.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, labeled the bill “simply theft — monumental, brazen theft from the American middle class and from every person who aspires to reach it.”

Republicans dismissed the denunciation as sour grapes. They didn’t seem overly worried about the political consequences of tying their future to legislation that was polling badly. For many, this was precisely what they had come to Washington to do, and they had finally done it with the help of President Donald Trump — a man who might sometimes make their lives more difficult but was eager to sign their tax bill and claim his share of the credit.

“Even before the rise of Donald Trump, we have been awaiting this day to be done for a long time,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said in a recent interview. “We just didn’t have the pieces in place to achieve it. And all of the sudden after November’s election, we did have the pieces in place.”

McConnell has considered criticism of his party for its lack of accomplishment to be a bad rap, pointing to the flurry of conservative judicial appointments he has engineered as well as successful efforts by the Trump administration to ease the federal regulatory environment.

But there was no denying that Republicans, in full control of the White House and Congress, had failed to meet their own lofty expectations set at the start of the year, and the furious two-month drive to pass the tax bill reflected that sentiment.

For Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, this was a watershed day. His pursuit of a tax cut had dominated his career and he gaveled down the winning vote with such enthusiasm that the gavel fell to the floor.

“This is profound change and this is change that is going to put our country on the right path,” Ryan said.

Yet he had shifted his message from a few weeks ago when he dismissed parallels to the Democratic passage in 2010 of the new health care law, which proved an anchor for Democrats in midterm elections that year. Ryan had initially said that the tax cut was not unpopular, as the health care law had been; now he says that the tax cuts will prove popular as Americans realize the benefits.

“Results are going to make this popular,” he said.

But Democrats, even those up for re-election in areas dominated last year by Trump, expressed their opposition with their votes. Not one was willing to support the bill, which Democratic strategists said would penalize suburban swing voters who have already shown increasing antipathy to Republicans in elections this year.

“This bill is a significant missed opportunity,” said Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, one of the Democrats facing re-election who is most at risk of losing his seat next year.

Republicans were already facing a rough time in 2018 given the usual reverberations against a first-term president of the same party, and the tax bill could exacerbate those difficulties. Not to mention that lawmakers still had to extricate themselves from the possibility of a voter-alienating government shutdown by the end of the week.

Republicans said they were confident that voters would quickly see gains under the tax bill — lower payroll withholding and strong employment numbers, for example — and reward those who supported the legislation.

They acknowledge it is a gamble, but one they saw as well worth taking. After all, it is precisely what many of them came to Washington to do.