U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is supporting a sweeping tax reform package that is quickly making its way through the Senate, according to an official statement released on Friday afternoon.
Collins said in the statement that the Senate agreeing to amendments was key to her support of the controversial legislation.
“Having secured these key improvements in the bill, as well as the commitments to legislation to help lower health insurance premiums, I will cast my vote in support of the Senate tax reform bill. As revised, this bill will provide much-needed tax relief and simplification for lower- and middle-income families, while spurring the creation of good jobs and greater economic growth.”
Under the tax reform bill, most of the tax benefits will go to wealthy Americans, according to official congressional analyses’ of the bill. Also, tax cuts for individuals will expire in 10 years, while tax cuts for corporations will remain permanent.
The Maine senator issued a series of tweets throughout the day detailing Senate agreements, either formal or informal, to include in the bill several amendments she proposed from the floor Thursday. The amendments moved the tax reform bill somewhat closer to the political center, but the overall thrust of the bill was still skewed toward generous tax cuts for the wealthy while exploding the national debt. A similar bill passed the House in November, but there were significant differences, so the differences would have to be reconciled in a conference committee, approved again by the House and Senate and signed by President Trump before becoming law.
Pro-business groups have touted tax reform for cutting corporate tax rates and potentially spurring economic growth.
Collins tweeted that she was “delighted” that the Senate has informally agreed to preserve some state and local tax deductions in the Senate bill. She also tweeted that “the Senate bill will include my amendment to reduce the threshold for deducting medical expenses, which helps people with high medical costs, particularly seniors and people with chronic conditions.”
In a third tweet, Collins said the bill would also include her amendment to reverse the elimination of catch-up retirement account contributions by church, charitable and certain public employees.
Collins’ staff said an announcement on her vote was forthcoming, but did not indicate that she was yet firmly a “yes” vote.
The threshold to claim medical expense deductions would decline from 10 to 7.5 percent under Collins’ amendment.
Estimates project the bill would result in 13 million more without insurance – 50,000 in Maine – by repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. The bill would also trigger $25 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Collins has vowed that the Medicare cuts will be addressed in future votes and would not take place.
Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Obama administration, told the Press Herald in a phone interview on Friday that repealing the ACA’s individual mandate will lead to severe instability in the ACA’s marketplace.
“This will hobble the ACA,” Slavitt said. He said even if Congress, at Collins’ urging, agrees to approve two ACA stabilization bills – Collins-Nelson and Alexander-Murray – it would do little to stem the damage caused by repeal.
This summer, Collins was one of three Republican senators to buck the party and oppose ACA repeal, and Obamacare was preserved by one vote.
Steve Butterfield, public policy director of Maine-based Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said it’s difficult to say how much damage will be done, but “we know it’s not going to help.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Friday morning that there were enough votes to pass the tax reform bill in the Senate.
Also Friday morning, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the votes were in hand to pass the Republican tax reform bill without Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, implying that Collins was a “yes.” Both retiring Republican senators have been raising concerns about the tax bill causing a massive deficit problem. The Joint Committee on Taxation reported Thursday that the bill would add $1 trillion to the deficit over 10 years, even after adjusting for economic growth.
In a 2013 “Eggs and Issues” speech to the Portland Regional Chamber, Collins gave a presentation warning of the dangers of expanding the national debt, saying that it threatened programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“Excessive government borrowing crowds out the private sector, stifles business investment, depresses wages and slows economic growth,” Collins said at the time.
But concerns about the debt were overriden by Republican senators who wanted to approve the tax reform package.
Flake on Friday later said his concerns were addressed, and he moved into the “yes” camp, perhaps indicating that Collins’ vote wasn’t needed to approve the bill.
Still, in a closely-divided Senate, Republicans have little margin for error, with all with all 48 Democrats and left-leaning independents voting “no.” Republican leadership can only afford to lose two party votes and still pass tax reform,
That leaves Collins as a key vote needed to get to the 50 votes required for approval, although perhaps not completely necessary to move the package forward.
Collins initially pushed back to a Bloomberg reporter Friday morning that she was in the “yes” camp.
“I can’t imagine why Sen. Cornyn is speaking for me,” Collins said. “I speak for myself.”
However, Collins later Friday morning told reporters that she had a good meeting with McConnell and would have a statement out in a few hours.
Lori Parham, state director of AARP Maine, urged Collins to vote “no” based on threats to Medicare.
“We don’t think it’s fair that older Mainers who have paid into Medicare their entire working lives get stuck covering the costs of a tax overhaul,” Parham said.
The tax reform bill would provide hefty tax cuts for the wealthy and cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, among many other changes to tax code. With individual tax cuts set to expire in 10 years, half of all Americans would get a tax increase in 2027.
The bill would also trigger automatic $25 billion annual cuts to Medicare, although Collins has said she was promised by McConnell that the Medicare cuts would be reversed in subsequent votes. The AARP, however, is opposed to the bill, arguing that the Medicare cuts could happen.
Slavitt said Collins should “absolutely not” count on Medicare cuts being waived by Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he wants to cut Medicare, and Medicare cuts were included in this year’s House budget bill.
“That’s a very dangerous game she’s playing,” Slavitt said.
Republicans met behind closed doors Friday morning for more than an hour to discuss the bill, national media reported.
This story will be updated.