Politics

The 4 biggest stories in politics this week

Tax cuts progress while safe Senate seats don’t look so safe.

The tax overhaul freight train barreled ahead this week with greater speed than most people realize. A massive, contentious bill passed the House with relatively little trouble, and an equally massive, even more contentious bill went through key procedural hoops in the Senate. It’s far from clear that the Senate version of the legislation has the 50 votes it needs to pass — but it’s also far from clear that it doesn’t. The once-laughable GOP aspiration to get this whole process wrapped up before the end of 2017 suddenly looks plausible.

And speaking of formerly implausible things, the mounting series of allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Roy Moore are giving the country a sharply contested Senate race in Alabama that nobody expected to see, while Democrats dodged a bullet in a corruption trial against one of their own members.

Here’s what you need to know.

The House passed a major tax bill

With 227 votes in favor, House Republicans passed their version of tax reform. That discharges a constitutional requirement that tax bills originate in the House and clears the decks procedurally for the Senate to consider tax legislation. But the House bill, as written, doesn’t conform to Senate rules and clearly can’t pass.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: Reflected on a mirror, U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) (C) speaks as other House Republicans, including Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA); and Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) listen during an event at the Capitol to celebrate the passing of the tax reform bill November 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. The House has passed the tax reform bill with the vote 227 Ð 205. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Alex Wong/Getty Images
US House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) (center) speaks after the House passed the tax reform bill.
  • What the bill does: Highlights are a big corporate tax cut (from 35 percent to 20 percent), tax cuts for most families, tax increases for about a quarter of families, larger deficits in the short term and long term, and total repeal of the estate tax.
  • The big problem: Republicans aren’t making any vote-winning concessions to Democrats in this legislative process, so they need to use the Senate’s budget reconciliation procedure to avoid a filibuster. To qualify for reconciliation, a bill can’t raise the long-term deficit.
  • What’s next? For the House bill, nothing is next. It can’t pass and is dead. In exchange, members who voted for the bill face the certainty of campaign ads accusing them (accurately) of raising taxes on millions of families to cut taxes for big business and heirs to multimillion-dollar fortunes.

Senate Republicans drafted a tax bill

In parallel, the Republicans of the Senate Finance Committee drafted a tax plan that does conform to Senate rules at the expense of creating an even starker set of financial trade-offs.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: Members of the Senate Finance Committee participate in a markup of the Republican tax reform proposal on November 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. Republicans announced their intention to include a repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual madate. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Members of the Senate Finance Committee participate in a markup of the Republican tax plan proposal on November 15.
  • What the bill does: The legislation achieves the same core goals as the House bill — a big cut for business owners — but to avoid the House bill’s deficit problem, it schedules the individual tax cuts to expire in 2026, makes a permanent tweak to inflation calculations that raises taxes in the long term, and also scraps the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.
  • A brutal trade-off: The upshot is that in the long term, Senate Republicans are offering a higher uninsurance rate, higher premiums, and higher taxes on virtually every American in exchange for lower taxes on business — lower taxes that they say will spark increased economic growth.
  • What’s next? It’s not entirely clear. The bill zipped through the committee markup process this week with little overt opposition from anyone in the GOP caucus except an idiosyncratic complaint from Ron Johnson. But the bill also hasn’t locked down support from key members including John McCain, Susan Collins, and Bob Corker.

Bob Menendez isn’t guilty

The prosecution of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) ended in a hung jury and a mistrial, sparing Senate Democrats what would have been an awkward couple of months had he been found guilty, but potentially saddling them with an awkward couple of years, as he’s now set to run for reelection in 2018.

NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 15: Robert 'Bob' Menendez (right) (D-NJ) walks out of his car with his son Robert Jr., as he arrives at federal court, on November 15, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. The jury continues to deliberate in his corruption trial. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Bob Menendez (right) walks out of his car with his son Robert Jr., as he arrives at federal court in Newark, New Jersey, on November 15.
  • Why it matters: Had Menendez been found guilty, Republicans would have called for the Senate to expel him, which would have allowed lame-duck Gov. Chris Christie to fill the vacancy with a Republican. There’s no way any such motion would have gotten the 67 votes it would need to pass, but it would set up some awkward votes for Democrats and spark a lot of tedious arguments that we are now spared.
  • How he got off: As Zephyr Teachout explains, an undernoticed series of Supreme Court decisions in recent years have made it nearly impossible for the government to secure convictions in cases of bribery leading to a situation where politicians whose conduct meets any normal person’s understanding of corrupt behavior aren’t held legally accountable.
  • What’s next? The case is still a huge potential political liability for Menendez, but winning in New Jersey in 2018 is going to be very hard for any Republican. The state’s Democratic Party establishment seems to be squarely behind the incumbent senator, but it’s a golden opportunity for an ambitious politician to mount a primary challenge.

Things are looking worse for Roy Moore

Roy Moore, the GOP nominee for the special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by Jeff Sessions’s accession to the Cabinet, faced more credible allegations of sexual misconduct and abandonment by the national GOP — even as the state party turns against him and polls for the first time show him with a real chance of losing.

BIRMINGHAM, AL - NOVEMBER 16: Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore takes his seat after speaking during a news conference with supporters and faith leaders, November 16, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Moore refused to answer questions regarding sexual harassment allegations and pursuing relationships with underage women. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Republican candidate for US Senate Judge Roy Moore takes his seat after speaking during a news conference with supporters and faith leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 16.
  • More accusations against Moore: In the wake of last week’s Washington Post report alleging that Moore had repeatedly sought sexual relationships with teen girls, more accusers have come forward, and we’ve learned that his interest in teens was something of an open secret in the town of Gadsden, Alabama, back in the day.
  • The national GOP is backing away: Washington Republicans want Moore to get out of the race so they can replace him with a less scandal-plagued nominee who’ll win. They can’t force him to quit, but they are backing away from financial support for his campaign.
  • Polls show Doug Jones gaining: It’s nearly impossible for anyone to know how to properly model turnout for this race, but the latest polls show Moore losing to Democrat Doug Jones — an outcome that would have been unthinkable a couple of weeks ago.

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