Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The day after Republicans were humiliated with the loss of an Alabama Senate seat, they were desperate for some good news. This headline sums up how they got it: “Republicans forge tax deal, final votes seen next week.” The story was that the conference committee that has been working on reconciling the differences in the House and Senate bills had reached a deal and they were ready for a vote next week.

But hold up just a minute. The news yesterday looks like they’re not quite there yet. Philip Bump has the numbers. As we’ve seen before, Republicans can only afford two defections from their ranks in the Senate. When/if that happens, VP Pence will have to step in to break a tie. Signaling that might be a real possibility, he just cancelled his planned trip to the Middle East to be available next week.

The assumption has been that Republicans have already lost one vote—Bob Corker, who previously voted against the Senate version. Yesterday, Marco Rubio announced that he is a “no” unless the child tax credits are expanded. At this point, Mike Lee says that he is undecided for the same reason. Republicans can afford to lose one of them, but not both.

It is also worth keeping in mind that both Thad Cochran and John McCain have recently been hospitalized. They say they are ready to vote next week. But their health problems provide some additional uncertainty.

Perhaps the biggest signal that the conference bill is still in process comes from reports like this one yesterday:

Congressional Republicans are looking at shortening the duration of tax cuts that their plan would give to families and individuals, a leading lawmaker said Thursday.

That change would free up more revenue for additional changes to their tax overhaul, but it could also heighten complaints that the bill prioritizes cuts for corporations over households…

“They’re looking at every possible thing they can to meet the revenue needs, as always at the end of the thing we’re looking at everything,” [Hatch] said.

The changes they’re considering in order to meet revenue targets could affect senators like Jeff Flake, who is opposed to the kinds of gimmicks that are often relied upon.

Susan Collins continues to press for passage of the Alexander-Murray compromise on Obamacare prior to a vote on tax cuts, while Jeff Flake wants the Dreamers protected first. Neither one has stated categorically that they will be a “no” vote if their demands aren’t met. But if the bill’s passage begins to look doubtful, it will be much more likely that they’d be willing to take a “principled” stand.

Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that Congress has until September 2018 to use the reconciliation process (which only requires 51 votes) to pass tax cuts. So why the hurry? There are several reasons, one being that Republicans are desperate for a congressional win heading into the primaries for the 2018 midterms—especially when it comes to turning on the spigots of their donors. But another one came in the form of the special election in Alabama this week. That gave Republicans one less vote to work with.

McConnell has shown that he is perfectly capable of playing the hypocrite and reversing the position he staked out in 2010 to delay a vote on Obamacare until Scott Brown was seated. So he can give himself next week. But after that comes the holiday break and a requirement to seat Doug Jones.

That is why all of these issues need to be resolved over the next few days and a vote taken next week. While the odds of this one passing are still favorable, it’s definitely not a done deal yet.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.