The good news for congressional Republicans is that the GOP overcame the first perilous Senate hurdle on the road to enacting tax-cut legislation. But there are many more hurdles ahead.
The Senate passed a motion to proceed to consideration of a FY 2018 budget resolution by a strict party-line 50–47 vote, with three senators absent. The resolution “unlocks” the use of special procedures for consideration of a tax bill; as with the FY 2017 resolution that set up the failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, its passage means the legislation it authorizes can pass the Senate by a simple majority, making Democrats irrelevant if Republicans can stay united.
But unfortunately for Republicans, proceeding means that they have to actually write a budget resolution, which also sets out spending, revenue, and budget-deficit goals for the next ten years. Even though the GOP only cares about taxes, the budget resolution will set the terms of the debate on controversial federal spending issues, and also create a very real limit on the extent to which tax cuts will be allowed to swell the budget deficit. (Yes, there’s a way around those limits that involves making the tax cuts temporary, which is what Republicans did under George W. Bush, but that’s not ideal from a conservative point of view.)
Each step down the path to a final reconciliation bill makes each vote more concrete and potentially disastrous for Republicans. And some of the Republican senators who voted for the motion to proceed on the budget resolution could wind up voting against the resolution itself, against a later House-Senate compromise budget resolution, or against the ultimate tax bill. Indeed, one of the senators who is threatening to rebel, John McCain, may have set a precedent during the health-care debate, voting for the motion to proceed but against the actual legislation.
McCain’s beef isn’t about taxes, but about his desire that the budget resolution accommodate the higher defense spending that is one of his obsessive concerns. But another potential GOP defector, Rand Paul, wants less defense spending in the budget resolution than it currently has. Depending on which senators are present and voting when the budget resolution comes up for a final vote, it’s possible two “no” votes from the GOP side of the aisle could be enough to sink it. And the more that the Senate leadership and the White House accommodate troublesome senators like McCain and Paul with specific promises about what will happen down the road, the more others could rebel or put their own hands out for concessions.
With all sorts of House-Senate issues (the House passed its own version of the FY 2018 budget resolution on October 5), and with Republicans not even close to a clear outline of what tax provisions they intend ultimately to pass, it’s massively in their interest to keep everything as vague as possible for as long as possible. So every explicit concession is really dangerous. And Democrats (who so far have not broken ranks on the budget and its tax-cut objectives) are eager to expose GOP divisions with amendments to the budget resolution.
They’ll have a big chance to do just that later this week when the budget resolution is exposed to a virtually unlimited set of amendments voted on quickly, with little or no debate, in a special budget procedure known as a “vote-a-rama.” Democrats will offer all sorts of politically toxic amendments ruling out this or that budget or tax provision, giving themselves a rich menu of votes to use against GOP senators, and depicting the whole enterprise in the worst possible light. The Republican managers of the budget resolution will try to rush through the process in the middle of the night and with little attention as possible, and then get the resolution passed before their narrow majority falls apart.
They’ll probably succeed; even Senate Republicans who intend to cause trouble down the road would prefer to get a few pro-tax-cut votes in the bank first. But as we learned during the health-care saga, once you commit to using budget procedures in order to marginalize the opposing party, you are giving an awful lot of power to potential GOP dissenters. So in these first of many votes that will be needed to cut taxes, nobody in the GOP should be prematurely celebrating victory.