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 CollinsCNN: Biden likened Clinton impeachment to 'partisan lynching' in 1998 The Memo: Trump 'lynching' firestorm is sign of things to come Susan Collins calls on Trump to retract tweet comparing impeachment inquiry to 'lynching' MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMulvaney defends decision to host G-7 at Doral: Trump 'considers himself to be in the hospitality business' Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe MORE (Alaska), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerFormer Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Statue of Chief Standing Bear to be unveiled in Capitol MORE (Neb.) and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) siding with Democrats to pass the amendment from Democratic Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations Trump's Syria envoy says he wasn't consulted on troop withdrawal Democrats introduce SWAMP Act to ban meetings with foreign leaders at Trump properties 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 DeVosTrump admin gave over million in aid to students at unaccredited for-profit colleges On The Money: Waters clashes with Trump officials over 'disastrous' housing finance plan | Dems jump into Trump turf war over student loans | House passes bill targeting anonymous shell companies Democrats jump into Trump turf war over student loans 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 ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight 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 MORE (Pa.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPartisan squabbles endanger congressional response to Trump's course on Syria Trump urged to hire chief strategist for impeachment fight The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump's impeachment plea to Republicans 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.