Senate nixes provision boosting conservative college after uproar

Senate nixes provision boosting conservative college after uproar
© Greg Nash

Senators agreed to nix a provision in the Senate tax bill early Saturday morning that would exempt Hillsdale College, a leading conservative college in Michigan, from an excise tax on schools with more than 500 students or large endowments.

Senators voted 52-48 to strike the provision with GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending Senate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiIcebreaking ships are not America’s top priority in the Arctic 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families Trump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril MORE (Alaska), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerErnst, Fischer to square off for leadership post McConnell will ask Cornyn to stay on GOP leadership team Graham downplays need for bill reining in Trump on tariffs after White House meeting MORE (Neb.) and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) siding with Democrats to pass the amendment from Democratic Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyDemocrats protest Trump's immigration policy from Senate floor Lawmakers banned from talking to detained migrant kids Fourth Senate Dem calls for Nielsen to resign over family separation policy MORE (Ore.).

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The surprise move came amid an uproar over the inclusion of the exemption from excise taxes for any university that does not accept federal financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

Though several colleges do not accept federal funding, Democrats quickly seized on the section of the tax bill, arguing that Hillsdale College would be the only school that would qualify according to the guidelines set out under the legislation.

"Hillsdale College has powerful friends, including our secretary of education, but isn't that the type of insider deal we should oppose? A vote against this amendment is a vote for an earmark, for a school for powerful friends and subsidizing education," Merkley said ahead of the vote. 

The tax earmark was expected to be a big win for a school with several connections to the Trump administration.

For example, Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosEducation Department ordered to stop collecting debts from defrauded Corinthian College students Erik Prince says he 'cooperated’ with Mueller Voters should keep eye on 2018 races for state attorneys general MORE, graduated from Hillsdale in 1992.

Hillsdale graduates who joined the Trump administration include Josh Venable, chief of staff at the Department of Education; David Morrell, associate counsel to the president; Trump speechwriter Brittany Baldwin, and Stephen Ford, a speechwriter for Vice President Pence.

The language in the bill was sponsored by GOP Sens. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race MORE (Pa.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump Senate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill Hollywood goes low when it takes on Trump MORE (Texas). 

Toomey unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to keep the measure in the tax bill.

He argued that its inclusion in the tax plan was "not about Hillsdale College exclusively. This is a broader idea." 

"I think it's a perfectly reasonable proposition that if a college chooses to forgo the very substantial funds available to it from federal taxpayers, it's okay to say you'll be exempt from this endowment so I would urge my colleagues to vote 'no' on this amendment," he said.