In the Senate Finance Committee Meeting Room
Eight Tucsonans gathered in Washington, D.C. Tuesday to try and persuade Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake to vote against the tax bill working its way through Congress. One version of the bill passed the House. Senate Republican leaders are wheeling and dealing with on-the-fence Republicans, all but two of whom are needed to pass the bill. As I write this, as many as eight senators, including Flake and McCain, haven't made a firm commitment.
Alma Hernandez, senior organizer of Arizonans United for Health Care, brought five people with her from Tucson, many of whom were visiting D.C. for the first time. Joan and I, who were already in D.C., joined them. In the group were teachers, graduate students, retirees, a small business owner and a public defender. Our day was organized by the Center for American Progress, who set up the events, shepherded the group through the labyrinthine corridors of power and arranged for us to attend the CNN Town Hall on the tax bill Tuesday evening.
Neither Flake nor McCain were available to meet with the group, so we met with staffers. Individuals shared their stories. Julie Simmons, a cancer survivor and small business owner, said that her personal health insurance and her ability to provide insurance for her employees depends on the existence of the Affordable Care Act, which will take a serious hit if the tax bill passes and the individual mandate is eliminated. Tony Zinman also survived cancer and understands the huge expenses which can be associated with combating the disease. As a public defender, he works with many Tucsonans on the margins of society who depend on the kind of social services which could be endangered by the budget cuts which would inevitably follow the Republican tax cuts. Ellen Stark and Alma Hernandez, both in graduate school, spoke of the student loans they need to complete their degrees. They worried that eliminating the graduate student tuition waiver would make it more difficult for students and discourage potential students from entering degree programs in the future. Hernandez said Latinas like her are underrepresented in her graduate school program, and increasing students' debt burdens would make the situation that much worse. Sunni Lopez and other teachers complained that low salaries were already driving teachers from classrooms. Eliminating the $250 tax deduction for purchasing classroom supplies would make it even harder for teachers to make ends meet.
Many in the group expressed admiration for courageous stands both senators have taken. McCain is famous for bucking his party leadership. Though Flake has voted with Trump consistently, he has demonstrated moral courage in recent statements about the many troubling aspects of Trump's presidency. The group expressed hope the Arizona senators would recognize the fatal flaws in the tax bill and vote No.
From right: Sunni Lopez, McCain staffer, Center for American Progress employee
Both staffers said their senators remain undecided on the bill, though neither was specific about their concerns. The staffer from Flake's office said she couldn't address specific details. The people in the office most knowledgeable about the tax bill were busy learning more about it, following the changes being made, and didn't have time to meet with us. She did know that Flake was worried about the projected $1.4 trillion deficit from the tax bill and was looking carefully at the CBO's scoring. McCain's staffer said the senator is concerned about the expiration of tax breaks for individuals in five years. Both senators, however, support the provision eliminating the individual mandate. The staffers promised to take our concerns back to the senators.
Though the group received no firm commitments about the way the senators would vote, many of them remain hopeful.
Ellen Stark, a graduate student at the University of Arizona said, “I feel optimistic that Senator Flake is prepared to do the right thing. And I’m very optimistic after our meeting with Sen. McCain’s staffer. He displayed great concern over the graduate student tuition waver problem and the fact that the corporate tax cuts are permanent while the individual cuts will expire after five years.”
Sunni Lopez, an early childhood education teacher, was pleased to have the chance to tell her story to staff members working for Arizona's senators. “I was grateful that we got some of their time and I’m hopeful that the staffers understand our personal stories because I think those are the most powerful." Her concerns went beyond the tax bill itself to the problems teachers face, especially in Arizona. “I completed my masters degree in 2008," she said. "I’m still paying down my loans. My husband is working on an educational leadership masters degree program at this time, which means even more loans." Meanwhile, the couple faces educational expenses for their children. "I have a son who is actively applying for colleges. I have another son in high school. We’re working with everybody else’s children. It’s difficult to know that we can support our children morally and emotionally, but we’re not going to be able to pay for their educations.”
Cindy Winston, a science teacher with 25 years experience, thinks McCain may end up as a No vote. "I have every reason to be hopeful. McCain has voted surprisingly in the past, so I don’t see any reason he wouldn’t vote surprisingly this time.” But no matter the outcome, the experience was valuable for her. “It was very exciting for me to come to Washington, D.C. even if we only met with the staff. This is what makes America great, that we can come to their offices and hold our elected officials accountable, share with them what they need to hear. That was very powerful to me.”