Susan Collins’ vote could be key for tax bill

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Progressives who cheered when Republican Sen. Susan Collins tanked efforts to repeal Obamacare are pleading for a repeat on the GOP tax bill, saying she should revoke her support after House Republicans threw cold water on the pact leaders used to win her vote.

Ms. Collins, a moderate from Maine, backed a Senate bill that slashes taxes for corporations and certain individuals, but only after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to mitigate its repeal of Obamacare’s “individual mandate” by holding votes on bipartisan bills to tamp down premiums in the insurance markets.

There’s just one problem. House conservatives say their own leaders weren’t a part of that deal, leading them to believe they won’t be called on to bolster the Affordable Care Act as part of a must-pass spending bill later this month.

Opponents of the GOP’s agenda say Ms. Collins is falling for a bait-and-switch.

Senator Collins said Republican leaders promised her they would fix things. Now, we know they lied to her, and Mainers will suffer the consequences,” Save My Care, a coalition fighting Obamacare repeal, says in a brand-new TV ad.

The ad cites Congressional Budget Office estimates that say 13 million fewer Americans will hold insurance over the coming decade and that premiums will rise by an average of 10 percent, if Obamacare’s mandate to hold insurance or pay a tax is repealed.

But if Ms. Collins feels she is losing ground, she isn’t showing it. She says efforts to pass bills that restore “cost-sharing” payments to insurers and provide reinsurance funding to subsidize pricey customers should arrive before the year ends.

“I want to tell you that the negotiations are going well and that I remain confident, despite your skepticism, that will eventually get that,” she told reporters on the way to Senate votes Thursday.

She reiterated her belief Sunday, telling CBS’s “Face the Nation” there is “no reason to believe that that commitment will not be kept.”

House and Senate negotiators are working feverishly to reconcile versions of the GOP tax overhaul. The Senate repealed the individual mandate, saying it would scrap Obamacare’s most unpopular aspect and reinvest $338 billion in taxpayer subsidies in deeper tax cuts, but House Republicans avoided health care in their bill.

The mandate’s repeal is expected to survive, posing another test for Ms. Collins, who must vote again on the conference report.

Ms. Collins said repealing the mandate as part of tax reform was a bad idea from the start, citing figures that said some residents’ premium hikes would eclipse any tax cuts they receive. However, she said the stabilization bill negotiated by Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington, plus her own reinsurance bill with Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, would soften the blow.

Avalere Health, a D.C.-based consultancy, estimated that passing Alexander-Murray and $5 billion in annual reinsurance would lower individual-market premiums by 18 percent in 2019. However, researchers said repealing the individual mandate would create new problems, since healthier people would likely drop out first.

“As a result, it is important not to overlook the negative impact of repealing the individual mandate on long-term market stability,” said Elizabeth Carpenter, senior vice president at Avalere.

Congress and the White House are working on a year-end spending package to keep the government open beyond Dec. 22. Ms. Collins expects both health measures to be a part of the complex puzzle.

Yet House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has distanced himself from horse-trading with Mr. McConnell, saying he “wasn’t part of those conversations,” while conservatives say they cannot see voting to prop up Obamacare under any circumstance.

Republicans might not need Ms. Collins‘ vote for the tax bill, in the end. The Senate version passed, 51-49, with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee offering the only GOP dissent, citing evidence it would balloon deficits.

GOP leaders can afford one more defection and still pass a conference report, with Vice President Mike Pence serving as tie-breaker, though losing Ms. Collins would leave them with no margin for error.

In the meantime, progressives are trying to knock Ms. Collins‘ into the “no column.” Some activists even held sit-ins at her offices in Maine.

Ms. Collins said she might change her vote if amendments she made to the Senate bill regarding property taxes and other deductions aren’t included in the final product.

“I always wait until the final version of the bill is brought before us before I make a final decision on whether or not to support it,” she told CBS.

Opponents of the GOP agenda say they will hold Ms. Collins accountable if she supports the tax bill without securing the health provisions she was promised.

“I think if they don’t include her fixes she has to vote ‘no’ to retain her credibility with her constituents,” said Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress. “You can’t make something a condition of your vote, and when those conditions aren’t met, not change your mind.”