WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans desperate to pass tax cuts as a way to salvage their deadlocked legislative agenda earned a series of much-needed victories Tuesday, raising GOP hopes of approving legislation this week that will lay the groundwork for rate cuts later.
As President Donald Trump prepared to promote tax reform in a speech Tuesday night, Senate Republicans won over a key holdout on the budget resolution, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and welcomed back Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., whose absence due to illness had threatened to derail the bill.
"I support the Senate budget resolution because it provides a path forward on tax reform," McCain said in a statement. "I have long supported efforts to fix our burdensome tax system and hope Congress will produce meaningful reform that simplifies the tax code, strengthens America's middle class and boosts our economy."
These developments were seen as positive signs for the resolution, which lays out Republicans' spending priorities and would enable them to approve tax cuts on a simple-majority vote, without support from Democrats. This is a crucial step in a closely divided Senate, where few if any Democrats are expected to support tax cuts.
Debate began on the measure midday Tuesday after a party-line vote to move the process forward.
If Republicans succeed in passing the budget, they will be one step closer to approving the tax cuts that have become their essential policy objective since the Senate failed to pass multiple bills to rewrite Obamacare. Approving the budget would also help shore up ties between Senate GOP leaders and President Trump, who is angry at Republicans' failure on health care and bent on Congress approving a tax-reform package by the end of the year.
McCain had told reporters earlier in the day that the level of military spending would shape his vote on the resolution.
"It is an absolute requirement that we adequately fund the men and women who are serving in the military. I've said it 50 times, I'll say it again: Men and women in uniform are being killed and wounded because we have refused to fund them adequately in order to do their job," he said.
Asked whether he was close to a deal to satisfy his demand for more spending, McCain sounded optimistic.
"Yeah, sure!" he said. "We're having those conversations with leadership."
The GOP's success on the final budget vote is not yet sure, though McCain's "yes" and Cochran's presence gives the party a wider margin for error. Republicans control 52 of the Senate's 100 seats, meaning they can lose two votes from their own party and still pass the budget. Without Cochran, Republicans would have only been able to lose one vote.
Political pressure is on leaders' side: The fact that Republicans cannot cut taxes without first passing the budget resolution creates an incentive for members to support it.
"We feel good about where our numbers are today in terms of getting the budget passed," Sen. John Thune, S.D., the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, told reporters Tuesday.
The vote midday Tuesday on the motion to proceed was the first big test for leaders. It passed 50 to 47, with three senators absent and all other Republicans voting "yes."
Even Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who opposes the budget in its current form, voted "yes" to begin debate after a conversation with Trump.
"A lot of this is out of respect to the president and also out of the fact that we should debate the budget," Paul said during a conference call with reporters.
Yet Paul said he continues to oppose the current version of the budget. He demanded the legislation undergo changes – including substantial spending cuts – to earn his approval.
"I spoke with the president about this. He and I discussed this. I'm a 'yes' vote, but we have to obey our own rules," Paul said.
It is unclear which other Republicans, if any, plan to vote against the budget. As of this week, several who had threatened to oppose it seemed more or less on board.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters Monday that he has reservations about the eventual tax-reform proposal but was "fine" voting for the budget resolution to allow the process to move forward. "I voted for [the resolution] out of committee," he noted.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, whose opposition helped block the GOP health-care bills, said Monday that she was leaning toward voting "yes," but would decide after the bill goes through the amendment process.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, another key opponent of the health-care bills, said Sunday that she is "likely a yes" during an interview with ABC News.
Paul said his support hinged on cutting the $43 billion in overseas war funding desired by McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., arguing that the amount goes against the federal budget caps established in 2011.
"Are these people all hypocrites?" Paul asked on the conference call. "What's the point? Is this a charade?"
"They are not fiscally conservative," he added of McCain and Graham. "They think when it comes to defense, you can spend whatever you want."
Both of Paul's targets brushed away his criticism.
"Getting more bad info @RandPaul," Graham tweeted. "Don't screw up #TaxReform now."
"I'm not going to comment on Senator Paul's activities," McCain told reporters.