Trump antagonists and Arizona senators are key to tax plan’s success

Under normal circumstances, Arizona’s Republican senators would be easy gets for the Senate GOP tax bill.

Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake are anything but.

Their resistance promises to thrust the Grand Canyon State duo into a starring role in the drama unfolding this week in the Senate, as leaders race to salvage the party’s legislative agenda. And it demonstrates how far through the looking glass we’ve passed in a matter of months that such a bedrock conservative project could be bleeding Republican support just as it takes center stage in the upper chamber.

Consider the facts on the ground in Arizona:

  • The tax bill represents the top priority of a new president, who romped through the state’s presidential primary last year, beating his nearest challenger there by more than 18 points before edging out Hillary Clinton in the general election. (Although, consistent with his national numbers, President Trump now shoulders a double-digit disapproval rating in Arizona.)
  • The state’s jobless rate ranks 16th in the nation, just above the national average, arguably creating a stronger case for fiscal stimulus there than exists elsewhere in an economy broadly considered near full employment.
  • Arizona’s corporate community is rallying behind the bill — a testament in part to the state’s concentration of the retail industry. Retailers pay among the highest effective tax rates of any sector, meaning they would benefit the most from the corporate rate reduction at the heart of the bill. (Seven of the top 20 employers in Arizona are retailers, including Walmart, which has emerged as a top corporate cheerleader for the tax bills.)
  • McCain and Flake both typically serve as reliable votes for business-friendly measures. The two have compiled voting records the U.S. Chamber of Commerce scores at 83 percent and 73 percent, respectively. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, calling out their lopsided benefits for the rich, but reversed himself to support extending them in 2006. Flake has distinguished himself as an anti-tax stalwart, at one point contemplating a primary challenge against
  • McCain over his opposition to the Bush tax cuts. (As a member of the House, Flake supported them, backed making them permanent, and co-sponsored legislation to abolish the IRS.)
    But McCain and Flake now stand shoulder to shoulder among the handful of Republican holdouts who could yet sink the Senate tax bill.

Recall that McCain delivered the death blow to the Republican push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act this summer, and the tax package seeks to make a down payment on gutting that law by trashing its individual mandate. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has expressed concerns about that provision, and she wants to preserve the ability of individuals to deduct local property taxes from their federal taxable income.

Flake is focusing more narrowly on the deficit implications of the package. So are Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who are agitating for a guarantee, potentially in the form of an added trigger mechanism, that the bill won’t increase the debt after a decade.

But others are pressing for provisions that will make the package even more expensive. As the Senate Budget Committee prepares to vote today on the package, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a member of the panel, was still pledging to oppose it pending a deal to expand tax relief for so-called pass-through businesses  a demand shared by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). 

Republican leaders hope that inertia, powered by a recognition this effort represents the last, best shot to achieve a long-deferred conservative dream, will force senators back into formation.

In that, the Arizona pair could be outliers. There’s a strong likelihood that neither will face voters again, since Flake is stepping down rather than run for reelection next year and McCain is battling an aggressive cancer.