WASHINGTON — Rarely unified, Senate Democrats stood together in opposing the GOP revamp of the tax code despite the traditional popularity of tax cuts and warnings from President Donald Trump and Republicans about the political cost in next year’s midterm elections.
White House dinners, trips aboard Air Force One and even threats from Trump during campaign stops in their states were not enough to sway Democrats who rejected the nearly $1.5 trillion tax bill early Saturday. Lawmakers voting against the bill included 10 vulnerable Democrats from states Trump won last year, some handily.
When Trump took office 10 months ago, moderate Democrats such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and others were widely expected to break with their party and side with the Republican president.
But on Trump’s top two legislative priorities — taxes and dismantling former President Barack Obama’s health care law — Democrats unanimously rebuffed the GOP president despite his derision.
Trump said Saturday, “We got no Democrat help and I think that’s going to cost them in the election because they voted against tax cuts. I don’t think politically it’s good to vote against tax cuts.”
Democrats argued that the unpopularity of the tax bill with its deep cuts for business and the wealthy and modest changes for many Americans made their votes relatively easy. Multiple polls show the tax bill is supported by less than 40 percent of voters. And Democrats recall a painful political lesson: In 2010, Democrats backed the unpopular health care bill and lost their House majority months later.
“My Republican friends must know that ‘we needed to notch a political win’ isn’t a good enough excuse for a constituent who asks why you voted to raise their taxes but slash them for big corporations,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Friday.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was singled out for criticism by Trump at a campaign-style event in Missouri this past week, said her vote against the tax bill — and Trump — “is not risky as long as I do the hard work in making sure Missourians understand what’s in the bill.”
Trump went to her state “and told Missourians something that just wasn’t true,” McCaskill said. “This bill is not helping teachers and police officers and construction workers. This bill is helping wealthy people, and he is among the people it is helping.”
Schumer hasn’t had to do a lot of arm twisting with a caucus whose politics range from liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to Manchin, according to a senior aide. Democrats said they had reasons enough to oppose the GOP bill, which while slashing tax rates for corporations and the wealthy adds more than $1 trillion to the national debt.
“It’s a horrible bill,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, one of the vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in a state Trump won easily.
A third-generation farmer, Tester said if he imposed debt on his family farm at a rate similar to the tax bill, “my kids would go broke.”
Hours before the final vote, Tester released a video on Twitter showing him with a copy of the 479-page tax bill he had been handed minutes before. One page was filled with scribbled policy changes that Tester said he could not be read.
“This is Washington, D.C., at its worst,” he complained.
Heitkamp, who is seeking a second term next year, said the bill’s toll on the national debt made her vote easy.
“The risk is for the fiscal responsibility for this country,” she said. “We all owe a much higher debt — not to a political party or a re-election, but to the people of this country.”
Manchin, who like Heitkamp was considered for a job in Trump’s Cabinet, said he told Trump he wanted to “get to yes” on the tax bill but could not support the bill as drafted by GOP leaders.
“Millionaires, billionaires and gazillionaires should not have tax breaks,” Manchin said in an interview. “That’s what the president told me: It was not going to be for the rich. Well, the bill I have in front of me is not the bill that he talked about” at a White House dinner in September.
Republicans looking to unseat Democrats next year were ready with their criticism.
Rep. Luke Messer, one of several Indiana Republicans seeking to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, said Donnelly’s opposition to the bill showed he votes with his party’s leadership to block the president’s agenda.
“Once again, it looks like Sen. Donnelly has made his choice, siding with Chuck Schumer over Hoosiers,” Messer said in an argument that is likely to be used against other Democratic incumbents.
Donnelly said the Senate bill “would result in a tax hike for millions of middle-class families while giving a tax cut to the top 1 percent.”
Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican who is seeking to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, said he was surprised Casey opposed the bill in a state where Trump narrowly won last year.
“Blue-collar Democrats in Pennsylvania voted for Donald Trump because they want to see him do exactly what he’s doing now: allowing them to have more money in their pocket, making sure businesses they work at stay here in Pennsylvania and stopping illegal immigrants who compete for their jobs and depress their wages,” Barletta said.
Casey called the GOP plan “an insult” to middle-class families in Pennsylvania who will pay more in taxes “while the super-rich and big corporations get a windfall. It’s obscene.”
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.