Susan Collins believes that the GOP will become a pragmatic, center-right party that supports universal health care — just as soon as she votes for a giant tax cut for the rich that’s financed by sabotaging Obamacare, raising taxes on the poor, and adding $1.5 trillion to the deficit.
Or so the “moderate” Republican senator’s recent statements suggest. Collins famously voted against her party’s Obamacare-repeal bill. And she has said that it was a “mistake” for her party to include a repeal of that law’s individual mandate in its tax-cut legislation. According to the Congressional Budget Office, repealing that mandate will increase the number of Americans without health insurance by 13 million over the next decade, while raising premiums on the individual market by 10 percent.
But Maine’s favorite moderate is willing to swallow that bitter pill — because Mitch McConnell promised that Republicans will appropriate new subsidies and reinsurance funds to stabilize Obamacare, right after Collins votes for the tax bill.
These measures wouldn’t actually make up for the harms caused by repealing the individual mandate. But setting aside the inadequacy of these policies, it’s not clear why Collins is so confident that they will be passed. Is she really certain that the Senate Majority Leader has the power to force House conservatives to vote for more Obamacare spending?
And this isn’t the only IOU that Collins is already confidently taking to the bank.
If Congress passes the Trump tax cuts — and then sits on its hands for the rest of the year — Medicare will be cut by $25 billion, while Social Services block grants (which fund foster care and Meals on Wheels) will be cut by $1.7 billion, and various other social programs will be abolished in their entirety. This is because the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010 (or “Paygo”) imposes automatic spending cuts in response to any legislation that adds to the deficit. Typically, Congress gets around this requirement by attaching a Paygo waiver to every deficit-increasing piece of legislation. But Paygo waivers require 60 votes in the Senate — and Republicans plan to pass their (deeply unpopular) tax-cut bill without Democratic help. This means that the GOP needs to pass their tax cut first, and then work with Democrats to lift Paygo after.
Unless, of course, Republicans actually see automatic cuts to Medicare as a feature, not a bug of their current plan.
“I met with Senator McConnell just yesterday, and he has assured me that that will not be allowed to happen,” Collins said of those cuts Thursday. “If it were going to occur, I would not even be considering voting for this [tax] bill.”
Now, odds are that Republicans will waive Paygo. The party might support spending cuts, in the abstract. But across-the-board cuts that, among other things, take $14 billion from farm-aid programs (which benefit core GOP constituencies) is another matter.
And yet if Collins finds the idea of a 4 percent cut to Medicare so abhorrent that she wouldn’t even consider voting for her party’s tax-cut bill if it would lead to such a thing, then … it’s difficult to understand why she plans to vote for her party’s tax-cut bill.
That legislation would add at least $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, even if one assumes that the bill produce substantial growth effects, according to a new report from Congress’s (nonpartisan) Joint Committee on Taxation. And the actual price tag will almost certainly be larger. The Senate bill hides its true cost by phasing out its most popular middle-class tax cuts in 2026. Republican lawmakers have said, explicitly, that they only set these tax cuts to expire due to a combination of budget constraints, and the belief that it will be politically untenable for a future Congress to preside over a giant middle-class tax hike.
Regardless, the national debt is going to get substantially higher. And prominent Republicans are already saying, publicly, that they intend to use the growing deficit as an excuse to permanently reduce Medicare benefits.
“Many argue that you can’t cut taxes because it will drive up the deficit,” Florida senator Marco Rubio told a group of lobbyists and policy analysts in Washington Wednesday. “But we have to do two things. We have to generate economic growth which generates revenue, while reducing spending. That will mean instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future.”
Granted, it’s one thing for a Republican senator call for “structural changes” to Medicare, at some unspecified future date, in a speech to lobbyists; it’s another for congressional Republicans to vote, in lockstep, for slashing a deeply popular program that disproportionately benefits their base. Historically, the GOP has been afraid to cut entitlements without the cover of Democratic cooperation. And there’s little chance that such cooperation will be forthcoming.
That said, this Congress came within one Senate vote of passing the most unpopular piece of major legislation in modern American history — and is now on the cusp of passing the most unpopular piece of tax legislation in more than four decades. A good number of House Republicans appear to have already resigned themselves to political death. It’s hard to see why anyone would put Medicare cuts past this Congress — let alone some future GOP Congress, should giant deficits trigger an actual fiscal crisis.
But Susan Collins believes that her party will be faithful stewards of the social safety net, so long as she votes to cut a hole in it first — or else wants you to believe that she believes that.