Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is no stranger to the national spotlight. But now she’s under intense scrutiny as the Senate prepares to vote on a massive Republican tax bill that rewrites major provisions of the U.S. tax code.
Collins has hinted that she could support the proposal, but that she’s also holding out for some big changes. Some of those changes may never materialize, and that will leave Collins with the uncomfortable choice of supporting a bill she worries could hurt Mainers, or drawing the ire of conservative donors and activists and the White House.
Before the Senate kicked off its 20-hour marathon to debate the tax overhaul Thursday, Collins took questions from reporters during a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Reporters grilled her over a bill that critics have said will disproportionately benefit the wealthy, eventually increase taxes on low- and middle-income earners over the next decade and also increase the federal deficit.
But most of all, reporters wanted to know where Collins stood.
“Are you now a ‘yes,’ a leaning ‘yes’?” a reporter asked.
The answer — still — is unclear.
Collins said she wants to support the proposal because a tax cut could spur economic growth while reducing the corporate tax rate to make U.S. companies more competitive.
“I believe that we can stimulate economic growth and job creation if this bill is done right,” she said.
But right now, Collins said she believes the bill has a lot of flaws, including a repeal of the law that requires most Americans to buy health insurance.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the removal of the mandate could jack up insurance premiums for Mainers who buy individual insurance plans, while leading to a loss of coverage for millions of Americans.
Republicans can afford to lose only two votes on the tax bill. That means Collins could sink the proposal, an outcome that would greatly please the progressive activists swamping her office phones in D.C. and back home.
But it would also likely spur more outrage from conservatives, who are already upset Collins played a key role in defeating bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act earlier this year.
And the White House is watching, too.
“I am fully committed to working with Congress to get this job done and I don’t want to be disappointed by Congress, do you understand me?” President Donald Trump said while campaigning for the bill last summer.
Trump has taken an active role in working the bill, hitting the road late last summer to campaign for it. And earlier this week he met with Collins to hear her concerns.
Collins emerged from that meeting optimistic because the president promised to support three proposals that could help get her to yes on the tax bill.
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One health care proposal, combined with another that she’s co-sponsoring, is designed to stabilize insurance markets and ensure that Americans who receive subsidies to buy insurance still get them.
“The combination of those two bills would more than offset the premium increase that would be caused by those who have to buy individual insurance that would be triggered by repeal of the mandate,” Collins said.
Experts have said the proposals are underfunded and won’t do enough to offset the spike in insurance markets if the tax bill passes. But that assessment may not matter, because the proposals may never actually get through Congress.
Conservative members of the House have already said they oppose at least one of them. That means Collins could soon find herself in a pickle when the time comes to cast her vote on the tax bill.
She said a yes vote hinges on passage of the ACA fix and another provision to add a $10,000 local property tax deduction to replace the repeal of state and local tax deductions in the current Senate version.
“The SALT amendment is extremely important to me. The health care agreement is extremely important to me. It would be very difficult for me to support the bill if I do not prevail on those two issues,” she said.
“Sen. Collins runs the risk of a serious backlash from the right if she votes no on this,” said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.
Brewer said Collins can probably weather the backlash at home, but not nationally.
“Nationally it would tend to bring even more focus on her at a national level, even more ire from national conservative groups,” he said.
And potentially, the itchy Twitter finger of Trump, who has somehow left Collins out of the crosshairs despite her public criticism of him. A no vote on the tax bill — arguably the most important bill the president has pushed so far — could change that.