GOP leaders had anticipated the possibility of a Jones victory when they pledged to enact their tax bill before Congress left for its holiday recess. Under Alabama law, the secretary of state cannot certify the winner of the Senate special election until December 26 at the earliest and January 3 at the latest. Schumer said he was not calling for Jones to be sworn in immediately, acknowledging that state law left the governor no discretion in the matter.
Republicans currently have a 52-48 majority in the Senate, meaning they can lose up to two of their members on party-line votes. Once Jones takes his seat, that margin will fall to one. The GOP suffered just one defection, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, in the initial vote on the Senate tax bill last month. So if the remaining 50 Republicans stood behind the final version, it would have the votes to pass whether or not Jones is in the Senate because of Vice President Mike Pence’s role in breaking a tie. But by waiting until January, the GOP would empower any single senator to hold up the bill with his or her demands.
Democrats faced a similar scenario in January 2010 after Brown won the Massachusetts seat that had been held by Senator Ted Kennedy until his death. The Republican’s victory deprived Democrats of their 60-vote super-majority, and Senator Harry Reid, then the majority leader, announced that Democrats would wait until Brown’s arrival to hold further votes on health care. But there was a key difference in the election: The health-care overhaul had been a central issue in the Massachusetts Senate race back then, whereas the Alabama election was far more a referendum on Moore’s personal history than on the GOP tax bill. And in 2010, Reid’s hand was forced by one of his own members, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who called for Democrats to wait for Brown to take his seat.
So far, no rank-and-file Republicans have issued a similar demand for patience. “I don’t think an election should drive the timetable,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine, whose vote on the final tax bill is up for grabs, told Politico.
Even if Jones can’t halt the GOP’s drive for tax cuts, he could have a much bigger impact on their agenda in 2018. Republicans had been eyeing another bid at repealing Obamacare early in the new year after their repeated failures over the summer and fall. But the loss of a Senate seat likely leaves them at least two votes short of the 50 they’d need to pass the most recent proposal from Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, which would have converted the law into a block grant and cut Medicaid. (Republicans likely will, however, have succeeded in repealing the law’s individual insurance mandate as part of the tax bill.)
And both Trump and conservatives in the House have said in recent weeks that once the tax cuts become law, they would turn to welfare reform and try to enact work requirements and cuts to the food stamp program. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also said he’s been working to persuade the president to go along with his longstanding desire to partially privatize Medicare, which Trump vowed to oppose on the campaign trail last year. Republicans were already facing a heavy lift to win support for trimming the social safety net during an election year. Jones’s victory could extinguish those plans entirely.