With the GOP tax plan looming, the Senate budget vote matters

The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.

Congressional and White House Republicans are clearly focused on passing massive tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, but in order to make that happen, GOP lawmakers had to pass a budget plan. As the Washington Post reported, the Senate barely cleared this hurdle overnight.

The Senate approved the Republican-backed budget Thursday night, a major step forward for the GOP effort to enact tax cuts.The budget's passage will allow the GOP to use a procedural maneuver to pass tax legislation through the Senate with 50 or more votes, removing the need for support from Democratic senators.... The budget opens the door to expanding the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

The final vote was 51 to 49, with every Democratic senator opposed to the GOP plan, and every Republican senator except Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voting for it. (Paul complained that the plan doesn't balance the budget, which is why he broke ranks.)

Instead of a conference committee, which would reconcile the differences between the two chambers' budgets, the Senate-approved blueprint will now head to the House, which is likely to approve it, as is, fairly soon.

And why should you care about any of this? Because of what will happen next.

Once lawmakers have settled on their budget plan, Republicans will unveil their still-unwritten plan for massive tax breaks. Because of the procedural instructions included in the blueprint approved by the Senate last night, we now know the tax cuts can theoretically pass in the Senate with 50 votes -- which means a far-right tax plan can't be blocked by a Democratic filibuster.

There was a point early on in which some GOP lawmakers considered trying to get Democratic support on tax reform, but last night's vote cemented the fact that there will be no such effort. The tax plan will be written by Republicans, for Republicans, and rely exclusively on Republican support to pass.

But that doesn't guarantee success. After all, we saw this identical dynamic on health care -- a partisan bill, pursuing a far-right goal, without concern for a Democratic filibuster -- and it repeatedly failed anyway. Even some of the Senate Republicans who voted for the party's budget plan last night said this doesn't necessarily mean they'll support a GOP tax plan they haven't yet seen.

Looking ahead, keep two additional angles in mind. The first is, Republicans have convinced themselves that the key to their electoral success is passing massive tax breaks. They've come to believe this with absolute certainty, conceding publicly that they believe the party will be politically "dead" unless they pass the still-unwritten tax plan. It's become "an existential issue" for GOP leaders.

This is a bizarre dynamic because Republicans are trying to become popular by doing something unpopular. If there's one consistency in recent public-opinion surveys, it's the fact that the American mainstream doesn't want Congress to pass massive tax cuts for the wealthy. This has been bolstered by poll after poll after poll after poll.

GOP officials nevertheless believe if they ignore popular will, they'll be rewarded by the voters whose wishes they're ignoring.

The second angle, of course, is the deficit. There are still some Republican lawmakers, most notably Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who seem reluctant to approve tax breaks that will push the deficit higher. And since the plan's GOP architects have already conceded they have no idea how to pay for these tax cuts, this may prove challenging.

The solution thus far is for Trump and his allies, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, to argue that tax cuts don't actually cost anything -- because the Tax Fairy will magically intervene, increase revenue through tax-cut-fueled growth, and ensure that the tax breaks pay for themselves.

No sane person can take such an argument seriously, but expect to hear it anyway in the coming weeks and months.