Swirling through the political world this week is a growing debate about whether U.S. Sen. Susan Collins got snookered, hornswoggled or duped by Republican leaders to gain her vote in favor of a controversial tax overhaul.
The Maine Republican cast her ballot for the $1.5 trillion proposal at least in part because she secured a promise from President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to push through two health care measures by year’s end that she said will help bolster the individual insurance market and hold down premiums.
Putting aside whether she’s right or wrong — that’s another raging debate — it appears to some that the two bills Collins wants to see enacted are dead on arrival in the House, where conservative lawmakers have proclaimed they’re not going to let them pass as part of a final tax bill.
Despite the cynicism and doubt, however, Collins remained confident she’s going to get what she was promised.
A joint committee from the Senate and House, each controlled by Republicans, is starting work to reconcile the different tax bills that each chamber approved. To reach Trump’s desk, they both have to pass exactly the same piece of legislation, which likely means that another Senate vote looms.
At this point, there’s no doubt McConnell promised to do what he could. He said it on the Senate floor in an unusually solid public commitment. That Trump backed her also doesn’t appear to be in doubt.
The question is whether the provisions that Collins got colleagues to shovel into the tax measure can survive in the House, where some see her as something less than a tried-and-true party loyalist.
U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., told The Daily Beast that Americans “are sick of learning about trading votes to modify the health care system and one-fifth of the economy in exchange for a tax vote.”
“So it seems like it would be wiser for Republicans to actually follow what is in the Republican platform and not what is in the Democratic platform,” he said.
Collins sought passage of two health care related bills as part of the deal because the Senate tax plan included repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that everyone buy insurance or pay a fine, an addition she called a bad idea that spurred her to seek ways to mollify its impact.
The Maine senator didn’t set out to modify the health care system as part of the tax debate. The ACA’s foes did.
What Collins wants — and what McConnell vowed to deliver — is passage of a bill by Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would provide extra payments to insurers for the next two years and another bill that she introduced along with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to help cover the tab for the costliest cases among those enrolled in ACA plans.
The House Freedom Caucus declared it won’t support either bill, perhaps punching a hole in the GOP leadership’s ability to approve them without somehow pulling in Democratic votes or cutting a deal with the hardliners.
“I find it problematic to be promising something that the House has shunned from very early on,” U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., told The Daily Beast.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wasn’t part of the deal that Collins cut, The Hill reported, “raising further questions” about whether Collins’ two health care bills have a shot in the House.
Ryan, who got Collins’ write-in vote for president last year, hadn’t addressed the issue in public.
Outsiders who have weighed in are mostly on the left — and few have kind words for Maine’s senior senator.
“Collins has made a total fool of herself and it gets worse for her every day,” the Daily Kos said. On Twitter, the criticism is even harsher, with Collins ridiculed as everything from “a duplicitous fool” to an utter liar.
Collins is standing by her assertion that the health care proposals she offered aren’t doomed.
Others see it differently.
Ed Kilgore, writing in New York magazine, said Collins “is an experienced, savvy legislator. She knew when she cut her deals with Trump and McConnell that they would be worthless if the House didn’t go along.”
“She could have demanded assurances from Ryan and conservative leaders, too — certainly she could have demanded the moon at the point where it appeared she might be the decisive vote in the tax bill.
“What this series of events shows is that Collins, like the other alleged ‘holdouts,’ really wanted to ‘get to yes,’ as we kept hearing last week. If that meant securing a promise written in vanishing ink, so be it,” Kilgore said.
Collins’ office released a copy of the agreement reached between McConnell and Collins. Both had signed it. On its face, the ink looks pretty permanent.
In any case, whether Collins got played will be clear within weeks as Congress moves to adopt both the tax bill and a budget measure that Collins expects to include the health care measures she wants.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, center, arrives as Republican senators gather to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the GOP effort to overhaul the tax code, on Capitol Hill on Friday, Dec. 1, in Washington. (AP file photo)
Agreement signed by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Mitch McConnell