Commentary: Heitkamp says 'so be it' if tax bill vote comes back to haunt
FARGO — The television ads were running shortly after Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, voted against the Republican tax bill that passed the U.S. Senate. They blasted Heitkamp for opposing the bill, echoing ads that earlier urged her to "do what's right for North Dakota."
This was a predictable response from Republicans nationally and in North Dakota, who believe they have Heitkamp in a pickle because she voted against a bill supported by President Donald Trump, who remains popular in the state despite cratering approval numbers elsewhere. It's what the GOP has been waiting for, an issue on which they can hammer a vulnerable Democratic senator in a reliable Republican state prior to the 2018 election.
And since candidates the North Dakota GOP believed would be particularly strong opponents for Heitkamp — wealthy businesswomen like Kathy Neset and Tammy Miller — keep declining to run, her vote was met with particular excitement. Some might be rubbing their hands together thinking of Trump visiting the state next October to blast Heitkamp for not supporting his tax bill.
If Republicans expected Heitkamp to be shaking in her shoes and backtracking on her vote at that thought, they'll be disappointed.
The senator strongly defends her vote and speaks passionately about why the bill is going to be bad for her constituents and America. Heitkamp says she's not worried about losing her job over the vote because she believes she did the right thing for North Dakota and the country.
"People can say, 'Well, you just made yourself a one-term senator.' So be it," Heitkamp said on my 970 WDAY radio show this week. "I will tell anyone who will listen that this is not a good deal, and I will debate anyone on the stump why I believe what I do."
The bill passed 51-49 along straight party lines, with the Republican majority having enough votes to pass it without a single vote from a Democrat. Some speculated Democrats who face difficult re-election battles like Heitkamp and West Virginia's Joe Manchin would vote for the bill because its passage was inevitable. It would've removed a weapon from the Republican campaigns against them.
"The easiest thing in the world for me, because it was going to pass anyway, was to vote for it. I think that's what a lot of folks on the other side of the aisle expected," Heitkamp said. "But I didn't come here to not evaluate independently what this is. I didn't come here to check a box and say, 'This is going to guarantee my political future.' That's not why I came here."
Heitkamp, a former state tax commissioner, hates the bill for several reasons: Independent forecasters say it will add $1.5 trillion to the national deficit; it will lead to massive cuts to things like Medicare and agriculture programs; it will eliminate an important deduction for agricultural co-ops; and it's filled with numerous other unintended consequences its authors didn't think about in their haste to get it passed.
"I'm really tired of people saying, 'Oh, don't worry about that. We'll fix it later,'" she said. "When does Congress ever fix anything?"
But what has Heitkamp most fired up is the blatant unfairness of the bill. She believes it is, as others have said, a giveaway to the wealthiest Americans and corporations on the back of the middle class. She said the richest 572,000 people in the country will get a tax cut of almost $60,000 a year while about 90 million people will see their taxes cut by an average of $160, and only temporarily.
"What we were promised was a middle-class tax cut and what we're getting is a huge shift of tax responsibility back to the lower and middle class while we're giving tax benefits to the richest among us," Heitkamp said. "This is so wrong in so many ways."
None of this means the Republicans will back off. That's politics. They see Trump as their ticket to booting Democrats like Heitkamp from states who voted strongly for him. She seems neither scared nor regretful. And Heitkamp believes she is doing the right thing and voters will support her once they see the impact of the bill on their communities.
"There is nothing in this bill that's in my core beliefs about how we should govern," Heitkamp said. "Nothing."