WASHINGTON — Republicans return to Congress this week with victory in sight on their long-awaited tax bill as the House and Senate gear up to vote on the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul as soon as Tuesday.
The bill’s expected passage along party lines had Democrats scrambling over the weekend to try to pressure a late supporter of the legislation, Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, to vote against the bill.
With just a 52-48 majority in the Senate, Republicans have little room for defections given that Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, is getting medical treatment in his home state and is not expected to return to Washington in time for the vote. Democrats are now looking to change the trajectory of the bill by convincing Republicans who had initially wavered on the bill to vote against it this week.
Much of that focus was trained on Mr. Corker, who surprised many in Washington last week when he dropped his objections to the legislation, which had centered on the deficit impact of a $1.5 trillion tax cut.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Corker said the final changes being made to the bill had done little to assuage his concerns that his own party was being fiscally reckless.
“My deficit concerns have not been alleviated,” said Mr. Corker, who lamented that the bill could have been made better with more time.
On Friday, Mr. Corker cast those concerns aside and said he would back the final version of tax legislation, which is still projected to add as much as $1 trillion to the deficit, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. He said that while the bill was imperfect, it would still be good for the country.
As new details in the tax bill came to light over the weekend, a theory emerged that Mr. Corker’s vote was won in exchange for a last-minute provision in the bill that would benefit real estate developers by making it easier for them to take advantage of a new, more generous tax structure for pass-through businesses.
Mr. Corker, who was active in the real estate business in Tennessee before becoming a senator, retains a financial stake in companies that could benefit.
Critics of the Republican tax overhaul adopted a new rallying cry to hammer a bill that they think is packed with goodies for the rich: “The Corker Kickback.”
Mr. Corker denied knowing anything about the new benefit in an interview with the International Business Times over the weekend.
On Sunday, Mr. Corker sent a letter to Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the Republican chairman of the finance committee, to provide an explanation of how the provision got into the bill.
“Because this issue has raised concerns, I would ask that you provide an explanation of the evolution of this provision and how it made it into the final conference report,” Mr. Corker wrote. “I think that because of many sensitivities, clarity on this issue is very important and hope that you will respond in an expeditious manner.”
Mr. Hatch, in a letter issued on Monday morning, said he was “disgusted” by reports suggesting Mr. Corker had played a role in the provision’s addition and said Mr. Corker had actually wanted a less generous pass-through exemption than had been included.
“I am unaware of any attempt by you or your staff to contact anyone on the conference committee regarding this provision or any related policy matter,” Mr. Hatch wrote. “To the contrary, virtually all the concerns you had raised in the past about the treatment of pass-through businesses in tax reform were to voice skepticism about the generosity of various proposals under consideration.”
The provision was pushed for inclusion by Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a Republican who circulated a letter signed by 10 senators asking for the treatment. Mr. Corker was not among those who signed the letter. During debate on the bill, Mr. Inhofe proposed an amendment that would allow a tax deduction for all businesses structured as pass-through entities, including trusts, which were excluded from the original Senate bill that passed. Mr. Corker was not among those who signed the letter. Mr. Inhofe has not been shy about taking credit for securing the provision, praising the final bill for “including my amendment to ensure family-owned businesses of all types are treated the same under the tax code.”
Democrats remain unconvinced and they have taken to social media in an effort to voice their concerns about “the Corker kickback,” a hashtag that was going viral on Sunday night.
“There really isn’t any other good explanation is there?” Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, wrote on Twitter, suggesting that the so-called kickback was the reason that Mr. Corker decided to back the bill.
Others, however, suggested that Mr. Corker’s change of heart was more political than financial and that he did not want to be the lone Republican to vote against his party’s tax bill.
“The conspiratorial speculation about Corker’s real estate pass-through holdings seems thin to me,” said Scott Greenberg, a tax analyst at the conservative Tax Foundation. “Perhaps a simpler explanation for Corker’s flip is that his vote wasn’t needed before but is needed now.”
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, seemed to confirm on Sunday that pragmatism was in play during the final negotiations over the bill when he was asked about how the party got Mr. Corker on board.
“What we’ve tried to do is cobble together the votes we needed to get this bill passed, at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the largest tax cuts we’re going to be seeing since 1986,” Mr. Cornyn said on ABC News.