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Democrats call for halt to GOP tax bill until Jones is seated in the Senate

Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is accompanied by his wife, Louise, at an Election Night gathering of his supporters in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 12, 2017. Jones, a former prosecutor who mounted a seemingly quixotic campaign in the face of Republican dominance here, defeated his scandal-scarred opponent, Roy Moore, after a brutal campaign marked by accusations of sexual abuse and child molestation against the Republican. (Bob Miller/Copyright 2017 The New York Times)

WASHINGTON - Democrats warned Wednesday that Republican plans to speed ahead with plans to revamp the nation's tax code could spell more electoral trouble for President Donald Trump and his party next year - especially with young people and suburban families.

Just hours after Republicans suffered a humiliating defeat in a special U.S. Senate election in the GOP stronghold of Alabama, party leaders unveiled a compromise on a sweeping $1.5 trillion tax plan that will significantly lower corporate interest rates and slash taxes for upper-income households.

But Democrats - now able to tout recent electoral victories in deep-blue New Jersey, swing state Virginia and Republican-leaning Alabama that all showed signs of voter discontent with GOP policies - called on Republicans to wait to vote on their tax plan until Democrat Doug Jones, the winner of the Alabama race, arrives in Washington.

Mired in the minority and sapped of any control of Capitol Hill, Democrats crowed about the implications of the Alabama contest, touting how the party's base - young people, black women and suburbanites - turned out at higher rates than normal in off-year elections. Jones also cut in to Republican advantages in counties that overwhelmingly backed Trump in last year's presidential election.

If the Republicans move ahead with their plans to rush tax reform, "there will be many more Alabamas in 2018," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "Many more."

"The suburbs are swinging back to us," he told reporters, adding that the GOP tax plan is "an anti-suburban tax bill" because it would reduce how much homeowners can deduct in state and local taxes.

Republicans, however, ignored the Democrats and said they did not expect any slowdown the tax push, citing a Christmas deadline for action that had been set months in advance.

"We are moving ahead as we always have been on the same timeline we've been talking about for months," said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, added that he sees no need for a delay, because "The people back home want to get it done, now."

The House and Senate are poised to vote on the GOP tax plan by the end of next week.

When exactly Jones will join the Senate remains unclear. Alabama's secretary of state, the state's senior elections official, said Tuesday that the soonest the election will be certified is Dec. 26 or 27. The Senate's holiday break is scheduled to begin Dec. 22, and senators are not expected to return until Jan. 3, although that schedule could change.

Calls to slow down the tax reform plan are only the most immediate consequences of Jones' unlikely victory, which came against GOP nominee Roy Moore. Many Republicans, including McConnell, abandoned Moore's campaign after The Washington Post published a woman's allegations that Moore had sexually assaulted her three decades ago, when she was 14 and he was in his 30s.

Jones' seating will cut the Republican majority in the Senate from two votes to one, making it even harder to move the GOP legislative agenda forward without some bipartisan cooperation. Possible efforts to cut back entitlement programs or replace current health-care policy with a more conservative alternative - already difficult - could be impossible in a Senate divided 51 to 49.

Some veteran Democrats played down the notion that Jones could scramble the Senate's political dynamics in a significant way, citing his lack of a voting record that would indicate that he is a reliable supporter of the Democratic agenda and pressures he may face from his conservative state.

"I don't know what he wants to do, and he'll have to decide what he wants to do," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate's longest serving member, said. But, he added, the mere presence of Jones could shape the way Republicans and the White House craft their priorities for the coming year.

During the campaign, Jones ran as a centrist, and in his victory speech, he spoke of the need for politicians in Washington to find "common ground."

Schumer conceded that he doesn't know whether or not Jones would back the GOP tax plan, saying, "He will make a decision based on what he believes is best for the people of Alabama."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has become friendly with Trump and frequently plays golf with him, said he has spoken to the president in recent weeks about working on bipartisan deals next year and expects more willingness to reach out to Democrats after a year of focusing on GOP concerns.

"In terms of base politics, he's done a lot - regulatory reform, [Supreme Court Justice Neil] Gorsuch, the tax cut. In the bipartisan portfolio, there's not a whole lot in it," Graham said. "There needs to be both. He gets it. Infrastructure is a bipartisan project, immigration is bipartisan."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., a key moderate Democrat who stands to see his clout build in a closely-divided chamber, also urged Trump and Republicans to seek new ways to work with Democrats.

"Every time I've been around the president I've always felt he's more comfortable working on something bipartisan than on something partisan," he said in an interview. "The push he's getting from his party - is it's all for the base, boom boom boom."

In calling for a delay in the tax debate, Democrats pointed to their party's decision to slow down controversial health-care legislation in 2010 - after a Republican, Scott Brown, won a special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy in liberal Massachusetts.

"The result was just as shocking to Democrats as [Tuesday] night's result was to Republicans," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Calif., said in a floor speech recalling how Democrats delayed their health-care votes. She came to the Senate after defeating Brown in 2012.

Warren and other Democrats cited comments McConnell made in January 2010 in the immediate aftermath of Brown's win, calling on Democrats to slow down passage of the Affordable Care Act until he was sworn in.

"I think the message of the moment is that the American people, all across the country, are asking us, even in the most liberal state, Massachusetts, to stop this health-care bill," McConnell said the day after Brown was elected.

But Brown's 2010 victory was rooted in an election that became a national referendum on health-care reform - and Democrats needed to wait to pass some of the legislation enacting the Affordable Care Act because they did not have the 60 votes necessary to move forward at the time after then-Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., called for a slowdown. Although the Massachusetts election was squarely focused on the Democratic health-care bill, the Republican tax bill was only an ancillary issue in an Alabama election that was more squarely focused as a referendum on Moore's character.

Ultimately, Democrats ended up using special procedures to pass the health-care bill without Brown's vote - the same "reconciliation" rules Republicans are now using to pass the tax bill along party lines.

Publicly, Democrats cite the need to wait for Jones as a reason to slow debate on tax reform. But they also know that a delay could help build opposition - just as the summer-long fight among Republicans over how to repeal the ACA derailed as closer scrutiny sparked broad public opposition.

For moderate Democrats like Manchin facing reelection in 2018 in states that Trump won handily last year, waiting might give them more time to rewrite the tax plan.

"There's no economic meltdown. The stock market's doing fine. There are 17 Democrats who are ready to work on a bipartisan tax bill if they slow things down," Manchin said.

Manchin and at least 16 other members of the Senate Democratic caucus have tried at various points to work with Republicans on tax reform. But they have rebuffed pressure from Trump, McConnelll and other Republicans to support the tax plan given its generous tax cuts for high earners and the repeal of the ACA's mandate requiring individuals to purchase health insurance.

Earlier this month, the Senate passed the GOP tax plan by a single-vote margin, 51 to 49. Had Jones been seated then, however, Republicans still would have been able to pass the measure, albeit with Vice President Pence casting the tiebreaking vote.

Democrats are hoping that at least two Republican senators will move away from supporting the fast-moving legislation in the coming days, forcing GOP leaders to pull back. As of Wednesday, a handful of Republican senators, including Sens. Susan Collins, Maine, and Jeff Flake, Ariz., had not yet signed on to the new compromise.

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