Sen. Claire McCaskill said she wanted to work with Republicans on a tax bill. In the end, she fell squarely in line with the Democratic Party.
Her vote against the Senate’s GOP tax plan was a calculated risk for the Missouri Democrat a year before she faces a tough re-election bid.
The Republican tax bill is unpopular nationwide, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, but it’s extremely popular in pockets of the country where huge numbers of voters support President Donald Trump. Trump won Missouri by 19 percentage points.
“The real question for McCaskill is which group of voters show up in 2018,” Murray said. “The ones that she’s been used to being able to win over and convince that she’s been protecting the middle class, or the voters that say, ‘Whatever Trump is supporting we support.’ ”
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Time and again, McCaskill said she hoped to work with Trump and Republicans in Congress to overhaul the nation’s tax code. She sat next to Trump at a White House meeting on taxes. She accepted an invitation from his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner to discuss tax policy over dinner with other Democrats.
But Senate Republicans made it clear from the start they wanted little to do with Democrats as they drafted the tax bill behind closed doors. And Democratic leaders seemed eager to campaign against a bill written without their help.
McCaskill, though, was adamant she was willing to deal with the GOP. She couldn’t care less what Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said. She said she had no idea if there was a party strategy. She pledged to judge any tax bill on whether it provided permanent relief to the middle class or was “a sop” to wealthy people.
When the Senate Finance Committee approved the GOP tax bill on Thursday, all 12 Democrats on the committee, including McCaskill, voted against it. All 14 of the committee’s Republicans voted yes. The bill now heads to the full Senate for a vote on the floor. Debate will begin when Congress returns Nov. 27.
“I wanted to support real tax reform. This isn’t it — this is a bad deal for Missouri families,” McCaskill said in a statement after her vote. “Working people in Missouri deserve better than to get scraps, while corporations and wealthy business owners make out like bandits.”
She cited the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, which reported that households $75,000 a year would owe more in taxes by 2027, while tax breaks would continue for those making more than $100,000.
Now McCaskill has to defend her depiction of the bill as bad for the middle class in Missouri. At a speech in Springfield on Aug. 30, Trump urged his supporters to vote McCaskill out of office next year if she didn’t support his plan to lower taxes.
Democratic victories in off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey and other states suggest there is more enthusiasm among the Democratic base than there is in the Republican base, which would help McCaskill in urban areas such as St. Louis and Kansas City, said Murray, the pollster.
“If she could turn out huge numbers there that would help her offset Trump support elsewhere,” he said.
Although Missouri is redder than Virginia or New Jersey, McCaskill can’t afford to anger her base by voting for a Trump-endorsed tax bill, Murray said. “Obviously if you’re McCaskill, you’re going to need some crossover appeal, but if you alienate your base you can’t turn over enough crossover voters to make up for a base that deserted you.”
Republicans were quick to point out that they knew McCaskill would vote the party line all along.
“In 12 years, whenever it’s counted you can count on Claire voting with the left,” said John Hancock, a GOP consultant and former Missouri Republican chairman. “She works very hard to craft an image of herself as a moderate and this is all part of that show. The problem is that ultimately, even in this Congress, you have to cast votes.”
McCaskill says she gets similar complaints from the left: That she talks like a Democrat, but she’s really a Republican.
“That’s what being in the middle is about,” McCaskill said. “You disappoint a lot of people when you camp out in the middle, but I’m more than happy to work on a bipartisan bill. I hope that’s what it comes to.”
Even as late as Thursday, when she cast her final tax bill vote, McCaskill said she wasn’t giving up on working with Trump and Republican lawmakers.
“This bill is bad. I would love it if we could get a bipartisan group of senators together, finally,” she said during a break in an intense 11-hour meeting of the Finance Committee.
McCaskill complained that Republicans on the committee had all been told to vote no on all Democratic amendments. She said she wasn’t optimistic that they’d pass.
They did not.
McCaskill offered three amendments. One would have restored the deduction for individuals and families for property lost in floods or fires outside formal declared disaster areas. Another would have ensured that individuals have the same access to deductions as corporations, including those for state and local taxes or moving expenses. A third would have changed the GOP’s proposed deduction for income that passes through closely held businesses such as limited liability companies so that it applied only to people earning less than $1 million.
Each amendment was rejected along party lines, as were all the other amendments Democrats offered Thursday.
If congressional leaders toss out the current GOP tax proposal and start over and include Democrats in the process, McCaskill said, “I’ll be the first to sign up.”
But if the economic growth and middle-class tax relief Republicans promised fails to materialize, McCaskill’s no vote Thursday could actually play well for her, a colleague suggested.
“I think in certain areas of Missouri they will burn her at the stake, but I think overall it might be a blessing for (Republicans) to bring it up,” said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat.
“I mean, when you start bringing up the fact that parents can’t deduct $2,500 from their college payments, when people realize that this is going to (harm) Social Security, people are going to say, ‘What, you voted for that?’ ”