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GOP senators rally to defend Corker over tax bill provision

Matthew Daly, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans rallied to GOP Sen. Bob Corker's defense Monday, rejecting a report that the Tennessee lawmaker stealthily tucked a provision into the massive tax package to benefit himself financially and then reversed course to back the bill.

Democrats were unrelenting as they howled about the "Corker kickback" and argued the tax benefit for real estate developers boosts the wealthy — President Donald Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Corker among them — at the expense of average Americans.

In a letter on Monday, the GOP chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said that he — not Corker — was the author of the provision and that it was hardly a brand-new creation dropped into the final version of the bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, outlined the legislative path for the provision, starting with its unveiling Nov. 2 by his House counterpart, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas.

Calling himself "disgusted," Hatch said it was "categorically false" that the provision was "airdropped" into the bill and Corker was responsible.

"It takes a great deal of imagination — and likely no small amount of partisanship — to argue that a provision that has been public for over a month," debated on the House floor and included in a House-passed bill "is somehow a covert and last-minute addition to the conference report," Hatch said.

Corker said in a statement late Sunday that "he is not a member of the tax-writing committee and had no involvement in crafting the legislation." Corker said he requested no specific tax provisions throughout the monthslong debate and had no knowledge of the real estate provision in question. He pressed Hatch for details on the process, prompting the chairman's letter hours later.

Corker's office declined further comment Monday.

A story in the International Business Times, an online publication, said Corker "suddenly switched his vote to yes" after GOP leaders added the provision, which could boost Corker's real estate income. The story was co-written by David Sirota, a former Democratic political strategist who has worked for former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, Texas' John Cornyn, called the story "a salacious tale from beginning to end. It was also completely false and invented."

House and Senate negotiators finalized the tax bill last week and included a version of the provision to benefit the real estate industry in the form of pass-through companies, which are businesses in which the profits double as the owners' personal income.

These types of companies can reduce their taxable income by 20 percent, but the Senate bill had only permitted them to do so if they paid wages to workers. The final bill enables the deduction for owners of certain kinds of property as well, a tax break that would presumably help Trump, Kushner and other officials and policymakers with real estate holdings.

Brady said the claim that Corker had anything to do with the provision was "baloney." He and other House negotiators fought for the provision, Brady told reporters, adding that the measure will encourage real estate owners and other businesses that have few employees but "may be making major investments."

Corker owns real estate and development companies. His estimated net worth was more than $69 million in 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes campaign and financial data. Corker's most recent financial disclosure form listed a building in Chattanooga, Tennessee, worth $5 million to $25 million.

He opposed the original Senate bill, complaining it would add to the nation's debt and "deepen the debt burden on future generations."

But Corker said Friday that while the final version of the bill negotiated by House and Senate Republicans "is far from perfect," it represents "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive."

Corker's announcement made Senate passage of the GOP tax package more likely. GOP leaders are trying to muscle the bill through Congress this week, handing Trump his first major legislative victory by Christmas.

David Kamin, a law professor at New York University and former Obama administration official, said the tax break could create an incentive for companies to hold more property and assets while employing fewer workers.

"This is the quintessential picking of winners and losers," Kamin said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on Monday used the term "Corker kickback" as she criticized the provision, calling it another example of Republicans working "to enrich their donors and themselves" in the tax legislation.

"Republicans are racing to pass the bill before the public can discover all the giveaways, but the American people already recognize the tax scam for the daylight robbery it is," she said.

Big banks, wealthy real estate developers and other special interests are "already salivating" at the opportunity to exploit massive loopholes included in the GOP bill, Pelosi said.

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Associated Press writers Marcy Gordon and Joshua Boak contributed to this report.