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Republican tax plan faces an unexpected 'trigger' warning

The fate of the Senate Republicans' regressive tax plan may rest on an obscure "trigger" provision, to be added in the 11th hour.
Sen. Bob Corker
U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) talks to reporters after a Republican caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 29, 2014.

There's been a lingering suspicion among some Capitol Hill observers that something will eventually derail the regressive Republican tax plan. One of these days, the theory goes, there will be some kind of development that causes cooler heads -- and policy sanity -- to prevail before it's too late.

As things stand, those assumptions are in trouble. The GOP plan cleared the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, with two ostensible Republican skeptics -- Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Bob Corker of Tennessee -- sticking with their party.

To defeat the proposal, the country will need at least three GOP senators to break ranks. As things stand, with a vote slated for this week, there are literally zero firm "no" votes.

What's left to argue about? The answer, oddly enough, is "triggers."

Bob Corker is one of a handful of Senate Republicans who seems concerned about the impact the GOP tax plan will have on the deficit, which is projected to grow by at least $1.4 trillion over the next decade if the Senate plan is implemented. The retiring Tennessee senator is apparently demanding "triggers" that would scrap scheduled tax breaks if the party's economic forecasts turn out to be wrong. The Washington Post reported:

Now he's concerned about various gimmicks and overly rosy assumptions in the bill that would almost certainly mean the true impact on the debt is far greater than that. So the retiring senator has been pushing in recent days to include a "trigger" that would automatically increase taxes down the road if the bill fails to generate the level of economic growth that Republicans leaders keep publicly predicting.It's not clear what exactly GOP leaders promised Corker, who declined to share specifics with reporters. He said the amendment will be included in an updated version of the bill that is likely to be released publicly on Thursday.

As a rule, a secret plan, unveiled in the 11th hour, without scrutiny from anyone, isn't a good way to overhaul the tax code of the world's most dominant economic superpower.

Nevertheless, Republicans are moving forward, and according to Corker, he's getting what he wants in the bill. So, it's a done deal?

Not quite. Several GOP senators -- including North Carolina's Thom Tillis, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, Georgia's David Perdue, and Louisiana's John Kennedy -- have pushed back against the triggers, saying they'd undo the plan's benefits. This, in turn, creates a potential problem for the party: keeping triggers out of the bill alienates self-professed deficit hawks, but putting triggers in may end up pushing away other necessary votes.

As for the substance of the idea, it's tough to scrutinize the details of a proposal that's still secret, but by any fair measure, adding triggers to a bad tax bill won't make it a better tax bill.

And yet, this one provision may be the difference between the bill passing and failing. Watch this space.

Postscript: Just as an aside, to appreciate how absurd the debate has become, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has put his own twist on the triggers idea. In his model, according to a Bloomberg Politics report, if the tax cuts fail to create the economic conditions Republicans want, and the deficit is too big, Cruz's idea would trigger more tax cuts, not fewer.

In other words, if tax cuts adversely affect the deficit, Ted Cruz's solution is to automatically create more tax cuts, which would exacerbate the problem.