WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Republican drubbing in Tuesday night's elections "just puts more pressure on making sure we follow through" on the party's drive to overhaul the tax code.
Ryan's comments Wednesday came as the House Ways and Means Committee entered its third day of debate on the nearly $6 trillion legislation, with the Republican-led panel wading through dozens of amendments and rejecting Democrats' efforts to revise the bill. Republicans are determined to produce tax cuts and send a measure to President Donald Trump by Christmas to protect their congressional majorities in next year's elections.
The committee voted along party lines against a battery of Democratic proposals to restore to the bill tax benefits to student borrowers, people with significant medical expenses, homeowners and teachers.
The proposed elimination of the deduction for medical expenses not covered by insurance is especially controversial. The deduction has helped offset costs of such things as nursing home care, laser eye surgery and out-of-state travel for a second opinion on a rare cancer.
Eliminating it "is a direct assault," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., the failed amendment's sponsor. "This is devastating to individual families."
Ryan, speaking at an event held by the Washington Examiner newspaper, said, "We've got to get on with keeping our promise, and one of the chief promises we made when we ran for office ... in 2016 was that we would do tax reform and tax cuts for families, for people, and so we've got to get on with that."
His pledge to deliver on taxes came on the same day as a new government analysis of the House bill found its costs to the nation's debt are at least $259 billion greater over the coming decade. That's because of the interest costs the government has to absorb to borrow more money to keep the government running — and that puts the debt cost of the measure at $1.7 trillion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Ryan spoke hours after Republicans lost gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey by large margins in off-year elections that appear to be a bad omen for GOP chances in next year's midterms. The tax rewrite effort has assumed even greater significance in the wake of the GOP failure to repeal the Obama health care law.
"If anything, this just puts more pressure on making sure we follow through," Ryan said. "That's what I take out of it."
As the House panel pushed to finish the tax legislation by Thursday, the Senate's tax bill started to take shape.
That version is expected to completely repeal the federal deduction for state and local taxes, a flashpoint of contention for Republican lawmakers from high-tax states like New York and New Jersey, as well as for Democrats. Concessions were made in the House bill with a partial repeal.
The Senate measure also would retain the medical expense deduction, which the House plan eliminates. And the Senate would keep today's seven personal income tax brackets, not collapse them into four like the House bill.
Republicans hope to garner Democratic support for their politically necessary legislation, which would bring the first major revamp of the U.S. tax code in 30 years. Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn met with Senate Democrats on Tuesday as Trump phoned in from his Asia trip.
Democrats weren't buying Trump's argument that the emerging GOP tax bill would hurt wealthy people, as he was said to have claimed during the call.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday his Democratic colleagues were "sort of shocked at what President Trump said and how far away from reality it was. He said there are no tax breaks for wealthy people in this bill, that's why he had to put (repeal) of the estate tax in."
The GOP plan calls for repealing the inheritance tax on multimillion-dollar estates, a benefit for the wealthy.
As the committee debated the amendments, Democrats accused the Republicans of eliminating the benefits to pay for billions in tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations.
"Is it all so we can repeal the estate tax?" asked Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the committee's top Democrat.
Republicans defended the changes. "It's offensive to insinuate that we don't care about these people," said Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y.
The tax cuts would stimulate the economy and create jobs, bringing the most valuable benefits to all vulnerable people, the GOP lawmakers insisted.
Numerous issues were in play, including the precise levels for a mortgage interest deduction and whether the legislation would serve as a vehicle to repeal the "Obamacare" requirement for nearly all Americans to carry health insurance.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office lowered its estimate Wednesday for how much money repealing the so-called individual mandate would save from $416 billion over a decade to $338 billion.
Republicans have discussed repealing the mandate in their tax legislation to raise money to pay for the tax cuts, but the smaller estimate means they would gain less by doing so. Repeal would save money because without being forced to get coverage, fewer people would sign up for Medicaid or buy federally subsidized private insurance.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram contributed to this report.