As lawmakers grope for a tax package, Democrats split late last week over how much of a fight to put up as Republicans sought to move the process along.
The divide was on vivid display Friday, when House Democrats didn’t attempt to stop a Republican tax bill from proceeding on procedural grounds, but Senate Democrats used parliamentary maneuvering to temporarily grind the chamber to a halt.
The difference in tactics among Democrats comes as the party is at a moment of maximum political leverage. Fractures among Republicans over tax policy raise the possibility that Democratic support will ultimately be needed to pass legislation that raises about $400 million to balance next year’s budget.
On Friday, the House and Senate both voted to allow lawmakers from both chambers to begin negotiating a tax package through a conference committee. In the House, that meant passing a stripped-down tax bill.
Because of parliamentary procedure, two-thirds of lawmakers needed to support a motion to allow debate on the bill. That motion failed on Thursday, largely driven by opposition from conservative Republicans who fear a conference committee will alter tax exemptions for business owners. More than 300,000 filers have claimed the exemptions.
After internal discussions, Republican opponents dropped their objection to allowing the bill to come up for debate Friday. But almost no Democrats objected, either, though most Democrats oppose increases to the sales tax, which likely will be part of any tax deal eventually negotiated. Democrats also allowed debate on the bill to begin without demanding a roll call.
Democrats voted against passage of the bill itself. But unlike the procedural motion, passage only required a majority vote.
The ranking Democrat on the House tax committee, Rep. Tom Sawyer, of Wichita, couldn’t guarantee Democrats would gain anything in the conference committee by accommodating Republicans. Asked why Democrats didn’t attempt to fight the Republicans on procedural grounds, Sawyer said he agreed with Republicans that the process needed to move forward.
“I’m realistic,” Sawyer said. “There’s only 28 Democrats. Obviously, we want a package that closes the business loophole. We think 330,000 business owners need to pay some tax, hopefully in the end that will happen. But procedurally, we need to move forward.”
Senate Democrats took a sharply different path. To allow negotiations to begin with the House, senators on Friday needed to vote down the bill that had passed the House hours earlier.
As the Senate debated what is called a non-concur motion, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, offered a substitute motion to instead concur on the bill, which would have sent the legislation to Gov. Sam Brownback.
Whatever package the conference committee produces, lawmakers in both chambers can only vote up or down on it and can’t offer amendments.
“This process takes away from the rest of us, whether we’re Republican or Democrats,” Hensley said. “It takes away from the rest of us the opportunity to have our say. We will not be able to go through the normal process of running tax bills across either floor.”
One by one, several Republican senators rose to support Hensley’s motion. The prospect that the Democratic leader’s motion would be successful caused Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, to call for the Senate to adjourn so Republicans could regroup in caucus.
While the Senate ultimately defeated Hensley’s motion, GOP supporters of the motion extracted guarantees of a full-blown tax debate from Republican leadership, effectively delaying the start of House-Senate tax negotiations.
Some House Democrats would like to see their caucus take a more aggressive approach, as well.
“Our constituents will never know where legislators really stand on these issues unless we debate these issues on the House floor in public,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.
“And what took place here (Friday) is an attempt, sadly, I fear on the part of both parties to obfuscate the issues, so that the electorate doesn’t really know who voted for what, when or where.”