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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 CollinsBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMurkowski: Trump should concede White House race Graham: Trump should attend Biden inauguration 'if' Biden wins OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent MORE (Alaska), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerTech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska GOP senators pan debate: 'S---show,' 'awful,' 'embarrassment' MORE (Neb.) and John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) siding with Democrats to pass the amendment from Democratic Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Supreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising Trump supporters demonstrate across the country following Biden-Harris win 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 DeVosAnti-bullying scholarship program offers 'Hope' for students — and school choice National reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Women set to take key roles in Biden administration 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 ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (Pa.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs 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.