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FILE PHOTO: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) speaks with reporters ahead of the party luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo - RC1965F32030

Susan Collins on taxes, health care and Trump’s mental health

There is nothing better than good scheduling. Thursday morning, the Christian Science Monitor’s regular breakfast with newsmakers hosted a particularly important lawmaker at the moment: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a key swing vote in the Senate GOP conference on issues like health care and taxes.

Collins covered everything from taxes to health care to the possibility of a government shutdown to the president’s mental health and his retweets Wednesday of anti-Muslim videos. It was a lot of news. We decided to post our full notes from our spot at the table. Note: These are real-time notes, not verbatim.

What is your reaction to Bowles/Simpson conclusions about the tax bill and its effects?

Collins: CBO has estimated that just 0.4 percent increase in GDP will cause revenues to increase by $1 trillion. The purpose of this bill — about which I have a lot of concerns – is to stimulate economic growth. If we stimulate economic growth, should cause wages to rise.

What do you think about a deficit trigger?

Collins: It is still under negotiation. I’ve heard so many different versions. I’m not unmindful of the impact of the debt — the fact that if we’re wrong, it would cause interest rates to go up. That would make the debt an even greater problem.

The bulk of the of the benefits of this bill go to the rich and it would trigger cuts in programs affecting the poor, including Medicare. And it would affect health care with the individual mandate repeal. Some Republicans think one purpose is to starve government. Given that, how can you consider supporting it?

Collins: On the Medicare/paygo spending cuts, I strongly oppose that and have asked what is the plan to avert that. Senator McConnell assured me that will not be allowed to happen. We have 16 times raised the paygo requirements to prevent this from happening. I think it will be either on the [Continuing Resolution] CR or on the omnibus. But it will be done before the end of the year so the $25 billion cut in Medicare will not go into effect. I am confident of that. That has been discussed with Ryan also on the House side. If that were to occur I would not even be considering voting for this bill.

On the individual mandate: there is a huge difference between taking away insurance from people who like it and want it versus removing a fine on people who chose not to purchase insurance. 80 percent of those fines are paid by people who make $50,000 and less, so it is falling disproportionately on middle- and low-income consumers.

I am concerned about the effect on premiums. I propose: 1. Alexander-Murray. 2. [The] Nelson-Collins bill to give states funding to set up high-risk pools.

Neither are in the tax bill because they fall under [the Byrd Rule problems]. I have met three times with the president of the united states about this and gotten his endorsement. They are most likely going to be on the CR.

My scenario, assuming the bill passes the senate we then turn to the CR. Those would be put on the CR. While the tax bill is in conference, the CR would become law and then the tax bill would come back from conference. I’m going to know whether those provisions are in the bill and that matters hugely to me.

How much of a problem would it be if SALT is repealed in its entirety?

Collins: It would be very problematic for me if the SALT deduction is not in the Senate bill. I have filed an amendment to parallel what the House does. Allow up to $10,000 in property taxes to be deducted. I would pay for it by [raising] the corporate rate to 21 percent [from 20 percent in the bill now] and keep top individual rate at 39.6 percent for those filing jointly over $1,000,000. That more than pays for [the SALT $10,000 deduction]. I’ve had extensive discussions with administration officials and Senate leaders

Your last statement on the bill indicated you have warmed to it. Are you a yes? Leaning yes? And do you need your SALT amendment to pass and health care to be resolved to be a yes?

Collins: I can’t vote for it if issues of health and SALT not resolved.

Do you believe the leadership’s message that while individual tax cuts will expire in 2025, in actuality Congress will extend them eventually?

Collins: I believe there will be vote [in the vote-a-rama] to make individual tax cuts permanent or make corporate tax cuts expire at same time as individual. In other words, we ought to treat both the same. It’s on my list — I want to vote on it.

The Rubio-Lee amendment would make the child tax credit refundable and pay for that also by raising the corporate rate. Do you have any concern over the many asks out there to increase the corporate rate?

Collins: I don’t think we’ll end up with 28 or 30 percent — but I don’t think we need to go to 20 percent. I have talked with many CEO’s of large corporations with plants in Maine. I pressed them on this repeatedly. I said, look, if the corporate tax rate goes from 35 percent to 22 percent do you really mean to tell me that will influence your investment decision [over a drop to 20 percent]? With one exception all have said, no it would not, we would be delighted with a 22 percent rate.

By the way, I support the Rubio-Lee amendment but I have an even better one. I would make refundable the tax credit for childhood and adult-dependent care and I would pay for it by closing the loophole on carried interest. As America is growing older, there are more and more families caring for older parents and grandparents and it’s extremely expensive.

Are you surprised after all the things POTUS said about carried interest that that’s not in the bill?

Collins: It is addressed but in a modest way. I talked with the president about that and he said he had no problem closing that loophole. I can’t remember if I told him what I want to use the money for but he supports the idea.

What’s next after tax reform?

Collins: I believe infrastructure will be next and I’m excited about that. We need a massive investment in infrastructure in this country.

As a swing vote, how does this experience compare with the ACA debate?

Collins: The health care bills were drafted in a very closed way. There was never a committee markup in the Senate and there wasn’t much outreach to members on their ideas.

The tax bill has not been drafted in a perfect way but it’s been very different. There was a markup and there has been extensive outreach to members like me. There has been much more input than there was on the health care bill.

I would also note that over the past seven years there have been some 70 hearings on the general topic of tax reform. I think there should have been more hearings on this bill as well.
I would have liked to see more outreach to the Democratic side and we could have had a bipartisan bill.

You want to fund the CSR subsidies for health care that the president ended (and left for Congress to sort out). Critics say the CSR subsidies are an insurer bailout?

Collins: These are not bailouts to insurers. One issue in the system is the deductibles end up being so high that it is like you are uninsured. So if you don’t get help to people in that income gap, you make insurance unaffordable.

On health care, you are pushing two provisions — Alexander-Murray and reinsurance — that would mitigate some destabilizing effects. But there are other issues both from the Trump administration. And in the law itself. What do you see going forward with health care? Is there any prospect of fixing some of these greater flaws? Or will there be another round of repeal and replace?

Collins: After the repeal and replace bills failed, the Senate health committee heard from stakeholders on this. Out of that, came the Alexander-Murray bill. I saw that as the first step in fixing flaws in the ACA, of which there are a great many. My hope was there would be a series of bills going forward that would improve the ACA and fix the law.

I thought that was going to happen. I’m no longer quite as sure. It was truly exciting when we did these great hearings that produced a bipartisan bill and I thought this could be the first of many.

Now it looks like we will got back sometime in the spring to the Graham-Cassidy block grant bill. And the problem I have with that is it puts a per capita cap on Medicaid spending. The problem with that is that in a state like mine that is disproportionately low-income, less healthy and older, it gets hurt.

I’m interested in some states’ innovations, including Indiana’s.

Has the president’s leadership style changed this time [on taxes compared to health care]?

Collins: There has been so much more outreach — it is just night and day compared to the health bill.

Going back to SALT, there are differing opinions on this. Some anti-tax groups have said leave a total repeal of SALT deductions in the bill because it will force high-tax states to lower their taxes. What think of that?

Collins: First, SALT has been in the tax code since 1913. If we put the SALT deductions in it will help the distribution of the taxes [across classes]. But in addition if you don’t have the SALT deduction you are essentially making double taxation. I don’t want either of those. I want to help the middle class. This isn’t a special interest provision added lately.

There is SALT in general and then there is the $10,000 deduction on property tax. Are you arguing all of SALT or just the smaller piece?

Collins: I’m trying to be a realist. I decided the best way was to mirror what the House did. But if I had my druthers, I would expand it to include income tax as well as property tax.

We’ve seen stories in past few days about the president dabbling in conspiracy theories. How concerned are you about the mental health of the president?

Collins: First of all, let me say my conversations with the president have given me no reason to be concerned in that regard. But do I think it’s helpful that he raises these conspiracy theories or puts out a tweet of an anti-Muslim video that turns out to not even be accurate? No, I don’t and I haven’t hesitated to criticize the president when he does.

It looks like Roy Moore could win in Alabama. What do you think generally about the principle of the Senate voting to expel a member over allegations from before a member entered the Senate, that voters were aware of when they voted?

Collins: First, I have never endorsed Roy Moore. Just the fact that he was forced off the state supreme court is enough for me [to withhold endorsement]. To me the Constitution says the only reasons to not seat him [do not cover this]. So we have to seat him. Then there would be an Ethics Committee investigation. We need to see what that finds.

You raise a difficult question. If voters see these allegations and still choose to elect Roy Moore, is it appropriate for the Senate to nonetheless expel him? That’s a very difficult question and I don’t know the answer to that yet.

On the shutdown/government funding debate and particularly DACA negotiations?

Collins: It is extremely frustrating that I can’t go on the Senate floor with our appropriations bill in the normal way that we used to — have it fully debated and voted on and then go to the House.

I believe we have finished eight of the appropriations bills [in committee]. I would like to see the bills that have been reported taken to the floor, we could combine at least three together. Let’s at least get some of government funded that way and get going.

The continuing resolutions (CR’s) don’t account for programs that need more or programs that need to be terminated. It’s automatic, with no judgement.

Nevertheless, I think we are likely to have a short-term funding bill go through and an omnibus before the end of the year. That is better than a CR and better than what we did last year.

DACA?

Collins: I am very sympathetic on the DACA issue and think it should be done before the end of the year.

I talked to a student from the University of Southern Maine who did not know he was undocumented until he went to apply for his driver’s license and his family broke the news to him. He’s as American as anyone else. From Maine, worked summer jobs cleaning houses, he is a good resident of this country.

It is imperative that we act. I don’t like the idea that these young people are living in a state of panic. I talked with Jeff Flake about that yesterday. There are a lot of us — Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin.

Would that have to be on the omnibus [to get your vote]?

Collins: I don’t know it would have to be on the omnibus. I don’t want to shut down government. But I am pushing very hard, as are many people on both sides of the aisle, to get a solution to that issue.

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