Trump, Republicans back Democrats ideas to sell tax cut bill

President Donald Trump, center, walks with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, as he arrives at the Capitol to meet with GOP lawmakers about moving his agenda and passing the Republican tax bill, in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017.
President Donald Trump, center, walks with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, as he arrives at the Capitol to meet with GOP lawmakers about moving his agenda and passing the Republican tax bill, in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. AP

Republicans could be poised to deliver President Donald Trump his first huge legislative victory — thanks partly to measures championed by Democrats.

The Senate’s big, Republican-authored tax bill is teetering, needing the support of wavering GOP senators. To win the support of the last holdouts, the president and Republican leaders are suggesting sweeteners to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that have the imprimatur of two Senate Democrats.

Collins, a center-right senator often seen as a crucial swing vote, has been skeptical of the decision to include a repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate in the tax bill. But she told reporters Tuesday that she's worked out a deal with Trump to see that two soothing fixes to the health insurance markets would be considered.

“A lot of my concerns, it appears, are going to be addressed,” said Collins, who met with Trump on Capitol Hill Tuesday as he attended a lunch with Senate Republicans he described as “somewhat of a lovefest.”

Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Since Vice President Mike Pence would break any tie, the GOP can afford to lose no more than three votes. No Democrat is expected to back the tax plan.

Collins said she believes she’s secured an agreement to address two provisions to stabilize the insurance markets. One is co-sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash. and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. The other is backed by Collins and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Collins said both would be “considered and signed into law” before final House and Senate negotiations over the tax bill are done.

Democrats scoffed at the idea that the two plans would undo the tax bill’s damage.

A Murray staff memo argued that “passing Alexander-Murray would not shield patients and families from paying higher premiums, losing coverage, or losing coverage options should the Senate Republican tax bill be signed into law.”

Republican leadership was more circumspect about the possibility of the provisions being addressed at all. But the negotiations reflect some of the trading that’s going on privately and furiously as anxious Republicans look to nail down the votes and secure a badly-needed win for the president before the close of his first year in office.

Senate Republicans are optimistic that the Senate will be able to pass a tax overhaul, but concerns remain. Apart from Collins, Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. and Steve Daines, R-Montana, want a tweak to address their complaints that the bill favors large corporations over small businesses. Other senators have expressed unease that the tax cuts will add nearly $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., predicted a tax bill vote this week and said leadership was negotiating “a path forward” with Collins and the others.

“We’d love to have her get to ‘yes,’ ” Thune said of Collins. She was one of three senators in September whose opposition doomed the chamber’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The Alexander-Murray bill would fund through 2019 a key subsidy program to insurers that Trump cut in October. It would also give states more flexibility, allowing them to use existing Obamacare waivers to approve insurance plans with "comparable affordability" to Obamacare plans.

The Collins-Nelson bill would provide $3 billion to $5 billion for states to set up high-risk insurance pools to ensure people with pre-existing conditions are protected.

Collins said Trump, who had lunch with Senate Republicans to cajole them on the tax bill, “understood the need to have something to offset the premium increases” and that he “appeared very open” to the two provisions.

The Obamacare mandate requires that most people buy health insurance coverage or pay a fine. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that repealing it would cause premiums to rise and result in 4 million additional uninsured people by 2019 and 13 million more by 2027 as fewer people sign up for Medicaid or buy federally subsidized private insurance.

For tax cutters, though, the lure is that eliminating the mandate could save an estimated $338 billion over a decade.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the two provisions that have Democratic support “would come nowhere close to undoing the damage from individual mandate repeal.”

Democrats were reluctant to say they would vote for the tax bill if Republicans repeal the mandate.

“Eliminating the individual mandate is devastating, in terms of health insurance for 13 million and the cost of insurance premiums,” said Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. “The notion that somehow Murray-Alexander is going to save us from that is not only naive, it’s wrong.”

Anita Kumar of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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