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 CollinsPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Feinstein's office says it has received threats over Kavanaugh Ford taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiAlaska gov, lieutenant gov come out against Kavanaugh The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Budowsky: Kavanaugh and the rights of women MORE (Alaska), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerEPA signs off on rule exempting farmers from reporting emissions GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk MORE (Neb.) and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) siding with Democrats to pass the amendment from Democratic Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Energy: Warren bill would force companies to disclose climate impacts | Green group backs Gillum in Florida gov race | Feds to open refuge near former nuke site Warren wants companies to disclose more about climate change impacts DHS transferred about 0M from separate agencies to ICE this year: report 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 DeVosStand with veterans instead of predatory for-profit colleges Sessions: DOJ concerned about suppression of free speech on college campuses Arming teachers: Bad for students, bad for spending 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 CruzPoll: Cruz leads O'Rourke by 3 in Texas Senate race Julián and Joaquin Castro to campaign with O'Rourke in Texas The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump rips 'ridiculous' spending bill | FBI dragged into new fight | Latest on Maryland shooting 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.