How Alabama Senate Race Could Upend Tax Overhaul

Special election might come as lawmakers try to pass a tax bill

Alabama Republican Roy Moore was in the Capitol on Tuesday to attend the Senate GOP’s weekly policy lunch. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Alabama Republican Roy Moore was in the Capitol on Tuesday to attend the Senate GOP’s weekly policy lunch. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 1, 2017 at 5:04am

House Republicans will unveil their tax legislation Thursday, and it’s possible a new senator could vote on the final package if the effort takes longer than expected.

While the GOP hopes to wrap up its tax overhaul effort by the end of the year, the Alabama Senate race is scheduled for Dec. 12. Republican Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, will face Democrat Doug Jones, a onetime U.S. attorney, in the race to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is now the U.S. attorney general.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican, and Moore leads in recent public polling. But Jones is attempting to turn out Democrats and win support from Republicans who are turned off by Moore’s controversial statements.  

Neither candidate would be beholden to GOP leadership in its push for the tax overhaul.

Jones has expressed concerns about the GOP tax outline. Moore has signaled he would support tax cuts, but has grave concerns about increasing the national debt. Moore also criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose allies spent millions of dollars backing Sen. Luther Strange in the Alabama GOP primary. Strange was appointed to the seat in February.

At this point, it’s not clear if Alabama’s next senator will be sworn in before the tax overhaul process is complete, though it’s possible.

A matter of timing

Under Senate rules, a new senator can be sworn in when the election certificates are signed by the governor and secretary of state, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Senators could waive that rule by unanimous consent. According to a CRS report, that has been done in the past to accommodate “the unintentional or inadvertent delay” of transmitting the election certification documents. But the report authors noted that it is “modern practice” for the Senate to wait to receive the documents before the new senator is sworn in.

A spokesman for Alabama’s secretary of state said the latest day the election could be certified is Jan. 3. Under state law, officials have 22 days after the election to count and verify the results. The spokesman said the results could be verified before Jan. 3.

The Senate bill is expected to be unveiled next week. The bills are then marked up in their respective committees and passed on the floor. The House and Senate are expected to craft different bills, meaning lawmakers from both chambers will have to go to a conference committee to hammer out a compromise unless the House accepts the Senate plan.

The goal is to develop compromise legislation and pass the overhaul through both chambers by Dec. 31, preferably before the Christmas holiday. But some have been skeptical of this timeline, given that December will also be mired in a government funding fight.

Some Senate aides speculated that the goal will be to pass the bill in each chamber by the end of December, and the beginning of January will be reserved for the conference committee.

Pushing the process into January increases the likelihood the new senator from Alabama will be in the chamber for a vote on the final package.

Vote in question?

Republican leaders are using the budget reconciliation process to ensure that only a simple majority is necessary to pass the tax bill in the Senate. If no Democrats support the legislation, Republicans, with 52 seats, can lose only two votes and still pass the bill. Vice President Mike Pence would break a tie.

There is no guarantee that Jones or Moore would ultimately support the final tax package. Both have signaled they could have issues with the effort.

Moore’s campaign declined to offer further comment on his position. On his campaign website, he calls for lowering taxes “at all levels.” 

But Moore also raised concerns about the ballooning national debt. Republicans have allowed for $1.5 trillion to be added to the deficit in order to pay for the tax overhaul, saying they would address spending cuts next year. 

Moore is passionate about lowering the national debt and brought it up when pressed to talk about substantive issues at a debate with Strange in September.

“We’ll wind up like Argentina and Greece,” he said. Lawmakers have “absolutely no authority under the Constitution to give away our money like they’re giving it away,” he said.

For his part, Jones raised concerns about the GOP tax plan and the “partisan, single-party” process.

“I am committed to supporting tax reform that lowers taxes for working families and simplifies the tax code for business so they can create jobs; but this cannot be a giveaway to richest Americans paid for by working families,” he said in a statement. Joe Williams contributed to this report.