Tennessee's two Republican senators will have a hand greater than most in whether tax reform legislation is passed by Congress this month and signed into law by the president.
They'll only have one vote in the compromise bill that comes out of the conference committee of House and Senate members that was to be established early this week, but each of their votes is tied to particularly important aspects of the bill.
In the Senate version of the bill that was approved early Saturday morning, Sen. Lamar Alexander voted for the measure, and Sen. Bob Corker voted against it.
It passed 51-49, with 51 of the 52 Republicans voting for it and all 48 Democrats, plus independents who always vote with Democrats (some independence!) and Corker, voting against it. The House passed its version Nov 16.
A conference committee now will work out differences — many of which are significant — between the two bodies. Most Republicans want to give President Donald Trump a bill by Christmas, signifying at least one major legislative accomplishment for the year.
It won't be easy, and Republicans can lose only one more vote if Corker doesn't go along with the compromise bill. Even if they lose that one vote, they'll need Vice President Mike Pence to break a potential 50-50 tie.
One of the differences between the two bills is that the Senate version includes a provision that would remove the penalty from Americans who do not purchase health insurance, which was a tenet of the 2010 Obamacare law. In 2017, those who do not buy such insurance must pay the government $695, or 2.5 percent of their income, whichever is higher.
The House, which earlier this year passed a law that repealed and replaced Obamacare (but saw it die in the Senate), did not include a health care measure in its version, preferring not to mix the two issues.
However, Republican senators believe they can help sell their version with a promise from House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for votes before the end of the year on two measures to temporarily keep in place Obamacare subsidies for insurers, potentially lowering premiums.
One of those is Alexander's bill with ranking Democratic member Sen. Patty Murray of Washington — and 11 other GOP cosponsors — that would, among other provisions, give states permanent new flexibility in Obamacare innovation waivers and provide two years of federal cost-sharing reductions (giving time for another repeal-replace bill to be passed).
Trump, according to Alexander's office, has said he supports the bill.
Meanwhile, Corker last week felt he had secured enough of a promise on the Senate bill — including his proposed trigger that would raise taxes if estimates of revenue growth fall short and increase the deficit — that he voted for it to come out of the Budget Committee and onto the Senate floor.
But the trigger didn't survive in the final Senate bill — it was a victim of parliamentarian rules, insiders said, and likely would not have been in the overall final bill — so he stuck to his guns and voted against it.
"I continue to believe it would have been fairly easy to alter the bill in a way that would have been more fiscally sound without harming the pro-growth policies," Corker said in a statement late Friday before the vote. "Unfortunately, it is clear the caucus is in a different place. [A]t the end of the day, I am not able to cast aside my fiscal concerns and vote for the legislation that I believe could deepen the debt on future generations."
Although he called it "another tough vote," it was politically easier for him to stand on principle since he has decided not to run for a third term, especially given a recent Mason-Dixon poll showing his approval only 36 percent among state Republicans. Trump, on the other hand, the man who needs the legislative victory, is approved in the state by more than 50 percent of voters and 81 percent of Republicans.
Nevertheless, Corker said he would "take a close look at the product developed in conference before making a decision on the final legislation."
Despite our desire for Americans to keep more of what they earn, the potential deficit rise also has been our problem with the bill. We would have preferred a bill that concentrated more on lowering corporate taxes, which are now among the highest in the world among developed countries. This one includes that aspect but also the potential deficit-raising individual tax cuts.
As negotiations commence, Alexanders's bill may ease some of the worries of House Republicans regarding the loss of federal money from Obamacare fines, while Corker's already stated reticence makes the fine-tuning of the bill that can lose only one more vote that much more critical.
Our guess is that the bodies will come to some kind of agreement and give American taxpayers a Christmas gift they'll like on the front end. Our worry is that those taxpayers' children and their children's children may not have as fortunate a Christmas down the way.