WASHINGTON — Dealt a setback on taxes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was forced to turn to one of his harshest Republican antagonists to pass the most sweeping tax package in more than three decades.
Late Thursday, the Kentucky Republican faced a stark choice: either appease deficit hawks — and possibly lose other votes — or look elsewhere for support.
Elsewhere was Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, whose relationship with McConnell has been frayed for months.
“I don’t envy them their task,” Johnson said of Senate leaders on Friday. “It is a Rubik’s cube and I’ve never been able to solve one of those, myself. They’re looking at different competing interests.”
McConnell didn’t negotiate directly with Johnson, who this past summer questioned McConnell’s leadership after the GOP failed to dismantle Barack Obama’s health care law. So McConnell dispatched other top Republicans to negotiate with him.
The strategy worked and McConnell was well on his way to securing the votes. In the early hours Saturday, Republicans narrowly passed the nearly $1.5 trillion tax package in a giant step toward delivering the first significant legislative accomplishment to President Donald Trump after 10 months of all-GOP control.
“I think the American people wanted to see what having a Republican Congress means and it’s certainly a promise made and a promise kept that we made during the campaign,” McConnell told The Associated Press in an interview before the votes were cast.
The six-term senator, sometimes maligned as a product of the Washington swamp that Trump ran against, remains one of Capitol Hill’s most practiced negotiators — and was at the center of many Obama-era deals. On the tax measure, McConnell did a lot of delegating, putting in place a team to forge consensus on the difficult subject.
McConnell picked four members of the Finance Committee — Tim Scott of South Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and John Thune of South Dakota — to take the lead on the bill, along with Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas. Those members were charged with determining the priorities of others and forging a consensus.
“We invited in all the members of our conference, four or five at a time, so that they could be brought in, if you will, on the process of developing this bill,” McConnell said.
Said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “He set up a model where people who had credibility and expertise sort of carried the ball.”
The team-building paid off when inevitable blow-ups and last-minute snags bedeviled the measure. Members of the “core four” senators, along with Trump himself and members of his administration, worked to put out fires.
Trump, McConnell and Portman all worked with Maine Sen. Susan Collins, including key promises made by the president when he visited the Capitol on Tuesday for a lunch with GOP senators in which he displayed uncharacteristic familiarity with the measure’s details and had a better read of the room than in prior appearances. Toomey was tasked with negotiating with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., over an ultimately doomed “trigger” mechanism aimed at limiting the bill’s deficit impact. And Cornyn locked down Johnson, winning him over with a late-night phone call Thursday.
The Senate deal started to come together during a tense vote Thursday night on a Democratic motion that could have killed the bill.
Johnson, Corker and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake were withholding their votes, leaving Republicans short. During an hourlong vote, Corker, concerned about adding to the debt, feverishly talked with Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Johnson, meanwhile, was off to the side working on his own deal.
“I was just kind of biding my time. Sen. Portman came over and said, ‘What can we do?’” Johnson said.
Johnson wanted bigger tax cuts for business owners who report profits on their individual tax returns. The vast majority of U.S. businesses are taxed this way.
Earlier, Johnson, Graham and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., had met with Cornyn. Johnson said he laid out his terms in Cornyn’s office just off the Senate floor but didn’t get an answer about whether they would be met.
On the floor, Portman told Johnson his amendments would get serious consideration. Corker and Flake were also appeased. After a delay of more than an hour, the three Republican senators relented and voted to defeat the Democratic motion.
Corker emerged saying he had an agreement to roll back some of the tax cuts in the package in future years, reducing the package’s red ink. The deal, however, was a nonstarter for many conservatives, so McConnell turned away from the only Republican in Congress who has steadfastly raised concerns that the package would add to the nation’s growing debt.
Corker said he knew by the time he went home Thursday night that his deal was dead.
“I could tell there was a rebellion within the caucus,” he said.
About 10 p.m. Thursday, Cornyn called Johnson and said they had a deal to increase the amount of business income business owners could deduct. The deduction was increased from 17.4 percent to 23 percent, which would save business owners am additional $114 billion over the next decade.
“I had a pretty good sense that I was the last holdout that they needed to get to 50 votes,” Johnson said. “When it came down to crunch time I wanted more, but I’m a reasonable human being.”
Friday morning, Cornyn told reporters that Senate Republicans had the 50 votes they needed to pass the bill but were still working to get Corker and Flake on board.
Cornyn’s pronouncement was thrown into question about an hour later. As she entered a closed-door meeting of Republican senators, Collins told reporters that Cornyn didn’t speak for her.
About an hour later, Collins emerged from the meeting with a big smile on her face. She announced that she’d won an agreement from leaders to add a $10,000 deduction for local property taxes to the bill, though she was coy about whether she would support the package.
“I’m pleased with the progress that’s being made, but I’ll announce my position in a couple of hours,” she said.
A few minutes later, Flake issued a statement saying he would support the bill. Part of Flake’s price: assurances that Senate leaders and the White House would work with him to enact “fair and permanent protections” for people who were brought to the U.S. as children, and are now living here illegally.
McConnell had more than 50 votes.
Despite the joy among Senate Republicans, the measure polls poorly with voters.
“Big bills are rarely popular. You remember how unpopular Obamacare was when it passed?” McConnell said.
“These big, comprehensive bills always have a large array of enemies (and are) frequently viewed with mixed reaction from the public,” he said. “The real test will be, ‘Does this get American growing again?’”
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.