September 23, 2018
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Congress sends tax bill to Trump, but delays Collins’ Obamacare changes

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
From left, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, chair of the Republican Conference, arrive to speak after passing the GOP tax reform bill in the House of Representatives, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Dec. 19, 2017.
By Stephen Ohlemacher and Marcy Gordon, The Associated Press
Updated:

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans delivered an epic overhaul of U.S. tax laws to President Donald Trump on Wednesday, bringing generous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans while providing smaller cuts for middle- and low-income families.

In a re-vote due to a last-minute hiccup, the House passed the massive $1.5 trillion tax package that affects everyone’s taxes but is dominated by breaks for business and higher earners.

The vote came hours after the Senate’s early morning passage along party lines. It is the first major overhaul of the nation’s tax laws since 1986, but Democrats call the legislation a boon to the rich that leaves middle-class and working Americans behind.

Maine’s congressional delegation was evenly split on the bill: Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District, both Republicans, voted for it, and independent Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, opposed it.

The bill will repeal the Affordable Care Act mandate that Americans have health insurance coverage or pay a penalty. A condition of Collins’ affirmative tax bill vote had been offsetting the repeal’s impact on health insurance premiums by passing two other bills by year’s end — but in a Wednesday statement, she said debate on that will stretch into January.

Congressional Republicans have cast the bill as a blessing for the middle class, an argument they will stress in their drive to hold onto their congressional majorities in next year’s midterm elections. But one comment by Trump could complicate their messaging.

In praising the bill, Trump cited the deep cut in the corporate tax rate, from 35 percent to 21 percent, saying at the White House that it was “probably the biggest factor in our plan.” During House debate, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, jumped on those remarks, calling it proof that Republicans weren’t interested in passing meaningful tax cuts for the middle class.

The president was expected to sign the bill at a later date for technical reasons. In fact, the signing may be postponed until the start of the new calendar year in order to delay $120 billion in automatic cuts to popular programs such as Medicare and spare Republicans from having to explain them in an election year.

Starting next year, families making between $50,000 and $75,000 will get average tax cuts of $890, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Families making between $100,000 and $200,000 would get average tax cuts of $2,260, while families making more than $1 million would get average tax cuts of nearly $70,000, according to the analysis.

The Senate used a post-midnight vote Wednesday morning to approve the measure on a party-line 51-48 tally. Protesters interrupted with chants of, “Kill the bill, don’t kill us.”

House Republicans had passed the bill Tuesday with all voting Democrats in opposition. Because of language the Senate removed, the House had to revisit the measure Wednesday because each chamber must approve identical legislation before it can be signed into law.

Despite Republican talk of spending discipline, the bill is projected to push the huge national debt ever higher. Ryan said Wednesday the GOP is willing to risk running up deficits with the aim of getting a higher annual economic growth rate.

Congressional Republicans, who faltered in trying to dismantle Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, see passage of the tax bill as crucial to proving to Americans they can govern — and imperative for holding onto House and Senate majorities in next year’s midterm elections.

“The proof will be in the paychecks,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said during debate. “This is real tax relief, and it’s needed.”

Not so, said the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, as the long, late hours led to testy moments Tuesday night. He said Republicans are “messing up America.”

Collins worked to add three amendments to the bill, which will let taxpayers deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes, reduce a medical expense deduction threshold and allow public and nonprofit employees to keep making catch-up contributions to retirement accounts.

But Collins has drawn progressives’ ire in Maine: Eight protesters were arrested at two of her offices on Monday, when she announced her support for the bill. Democrats were given more ammunition in their messaging war against Collins on Wednesday.

To offset the mandate’s repeal, Collins had gotten Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to agree to support bills that would restart health care subsidy payments halted by Trump and provide $10 billion in reinsurance funds to help states cover high-cost patients in a spending bill that was to be considered by year’s end.

But House Republicans have balked at that idea, leading some to believe that McConnell’s promise won’t be fulfilled. It also became clear by Wednesday that Congress will only pass a short-term spending bill by year’s end.

Collins said in a joint statement with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, that her changes will be considered in January. They said there is “every reason to believe that these important provisions can and will be delivered” in a bipartisan agreement. Collins said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, told her on Wednesday he backs a reinsurance mechanism like hers.

But Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said Wednesday’s events showed why his party’s doubts about her deal were “completely founded.”

Under the bill, the top tax rate for well-off individuals would be lowered from 39.6 percent to 37 percent. It also allows oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and doubles the per-child tax credit to $2,000, with up to $1,400 available in refunds for families owing little or no taxes.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd and Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Kevin Freking and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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