Under the Senate voting process, provisions that violate the Byrd rule would be subject to a point of order, meaning they would need 60 votes to stay in the bill. While a few Senate Democrats remain in play for Republicans, they are nowhere close to the eight they’d need to meet that threshold. Republicans could try to structure the tax bill in such a way that Democrats would be forced to vote down its most popular middle-class benefits, but even that would be a long shot.
GOP leaders are struggling to win over 50 of their 52 members as it is. On Thursday, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona raised concerns about the bill’s impact on the debt, and he and other Republicans might also be leery of “gimmicks” like setting certain tax cuts to expire.
The search for more revenue has led conservatives, with an assist from President Trump, to push for Republican leaders to repeal Obamacare’s individual insurance mandate as part of the tax bill. That would generate $338 billion over 10 years, according to a new estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, although it still wouldn’t be enough to solve either bill’s math problem, Lorenzen said. “Repealing the individual mandate really would be a drop in the bucket for the problem they have,” he said. “There’s really no easy way to get around the Byrd rule without having significant parts of the bill sunset.”
The good news for Republicans is unlike in their health-care push earlier this year, conservative activists recognize the Senate’s complex budget constraints and are largely holding their fire. “Permanence in tax rates is better. At the same time, they’ve got to keep the momentum moving for tax reform,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers. “There are very few red lines for anyone at this point.”
With Republicans reeling from election losses and carrying a record devoid of major legislative wins, the political imperative of enacting some sort of tax cut in time for the 2018 campaign season is taking priority over policy purity. “After the epic fail on health care, if they follow that with an epic fail on tax reform, their odds of holding Congress drop dramatically,” Phillips told me, “and I think they know that.”
For conservative activists and lawmakers alike, that urgency means cheering a tax bill knowing full well that for it to have any chance of passing, it’s eventually going to shrink.