Senate GOP: We are unified on controversial tax policy change

Senate GOP: We are unified on controversial tax policy change
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans say that a brewing controversy in the House on state and local tax deductions won’t be much of a problem in the upper chamber.

They point out that a test vote held earlier this year shows the Senate GOP conference is unified on changing the deductibility of state and local taxes to pay for significant reductions to individual and corporate rates.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate tees up Yemen vote for Tuesday Senate confirms Trump's border chief House leaves out ObamaCare fix from must-pass funding bill MORE (R-Ky.) is helped by the fact that there isn’t one Senate Republican who represents the nation’s largest high-tax states — California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed Week ahead: Lawmakers scramble to avoid another shutdown Lighthizer set to testify before Senate Finance on trade next week MORE (R-Utah), when asked Monday if any of his Senate colleagues are demanding that the deduction for state and local taxes remain in the law. “I don’t know anybody who’s advocating strongly for that.”

“Not on this side,” Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynTrump adds to legal team after attacks on Mueller Senate tees up Yemen vote for Tuesday Senate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed MORE (Texas) said Monday when pressed if anyone in his conference is opposed to eliminating the deductions.

It’s more of a problem in the House, where 35 Republicans hail from those four states, enough to defeat a tax-reform package if Democrats vote en bloc against it, as expected.

Republican leaders have rallied around eliminating deductibility for state and local taxes as a reform that would raise $1.3 trillion in revenue and help offset the cost of overhauling the tax code.

Senate Republicans voted mostly along party lines earlier this month for an amendment by Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoLawmakers propose boosting park funding with oil money Lawmakers trade barbs, torch Trump at DC soiree Overnight Health Care: Senators unveil bipartisan opioid bill | DOJ to seek reimbursements from opioid companies | Groups looking to end AIDS fear losing ground under Trump MORE (R-W.Va.) to the budget resolution favoring the elimination of the tax break and using the money saved to “provide tax relief to the middle class.”

Only conservative Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump informally offered Cohn CIA job before changing his mind: report Congress moving to end US involvement in Yemen Congress races to finish .2 trillion funding bill MORE (R-Ky.), who regularly differs with his party leadership, voted no.

The Senate also voted during the budget debate against an amendment sponsored by Democratic Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellOregon governor says Zinke told her offshore drilling isn’t ‘lucrative’ there Overnight Energy: Zinke grilled on travel, offshore drilling plans | Pruitt says California can't dictate emissions standard | Dems sound off on elephant trophy policy Zinke defends Florida offshore drilling exemption MORE (Wash.) that would have established a higher procedural hurdle for changing or scrapping the state and local tax deduction.

Every single Republican senator voted against the Cantwell amendment. 

A senior Senate Republican aide said GOP moderates in the upper chamber are more concerned about making sure their colleagues are willing to make hard choices about ending deductions and tax credits that can be used to keep the cost of the bill in check.

“We have our own problems,” the aide said.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsHouse leaves out ObamaCare fix from must-pass funding bill Senate considers vote to add ObamaCare fix to spending bill ObamaCare deal in danger of falling out of spending measure over abortion fight MORE (R-Maine), a key moderate, on Monday told Bloomberg News that she does not support repealing the tax on large estates or cutting taxes for millionaires.

Senate Republicans control 52 seats and cannot afford any more than two defections, as Vice President Pence would break a 50-50 tie. 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyRepublicans open to targeted China tariffs despite steel flap GOP pushes for 'phase two' of tax cuts Lighthizer, Ross set to talk trade on Capitol Hill next week MORE (R-Texas) told reporters last week that he expects the Senate to accept whatever deal House Republicans strike on state and local taxes.

“My discussions with Chairman Hatch are pretty regular, and he’s fully aware that this is an important issue for our House members and that we are taking the lead to find a solution,” Brady told reporters. “I’m confident that will be honored.”

A group of House Republicans from New York and New Jersey voted against the budget last week in an effort to send a message that the state and local tax deduction can’t be fully repealed. The resolution, however, passed despite their concerns.

Even so, Brady has modified the bill to keep opposition from growing.

He pledged in a statement over the weekend to include language in the tax package that would allow people to take deductions for property taxes.

“At the urging of lawmakers, we are restoring an itemized property tax deduction to help taxpayers with local tax burdens,” he said.

It’s not much of an issue in the Senate, where moderate Republicans such as Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate tees up Yemen vote for Tuesday Senate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed America cannot afford to be left behind on global development MORE (R-Tenn.) are more concerned about how much the tax package will add to future deficits.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he’s not aware of any significant Senate GOP opposition to eliminating the so-called SALT deduction.

He argues that it would affect relatively few people, as many Americans would stop itemizing their tax deductions and instead take advantage of the doubling of the standard deduction — a core component of President Trump’s plan.

Many wealthy taxpayers already cannot deduct state and local taxes because their incomes exceed the threshold set by the alternative minimum tax, which would be scrapped by the GOP plan.

“In the Senate, I don’t see it” as a problem, Norquist said in an interview. “It’s not a very defensible tax credit. It’s a subsidy for big government.”

He contends the deduction favors states with big governments that need to be funded with heavier tax burdens and that taxpayers in states with lower taxes such as Texas have to pay comparatively more in federal taxes.

“I thought it would be a bigger deal than it appears to be,” he said.

Senate Republicans are waiting for the House Ways and Means Committee to unveil its package later this week, but they are coalescing around a plan that would only keep intact deductions for charitable contributions, home mortgage interest payments and complex medical expenses.

“The proposal on the Senate side is going to be to double the standard deduction, keep the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction and for some complex medical issues,” Cornyn said Monday. “That’s sort of the current discussion.”