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Republicans Denounce a Senate Power Play They Have Used Themselves

By Damien Gosling , in Politics , at February 10, 2021

Whether lawmakers love budget reconciliation or hate it depends on whether they’re in the majority. Democrats who are defending its use now protested it when they were in the minority.

WASHINGTON — Ever since Democrats announced they would use a complicated set of budget rules to enable them to push President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan through the Senate, Republicans have howled about being cut out of the process.

But over the more than four-decade history of the budget reconciliation process, leaders in both parties have availed themselves of it as a way of enacting their most ambitious fiscal plans, almost always over the strenuous objections of the minority party.

Since 1980, 21 measures have become law through reconciliation. The process allows certain measures laid out in the annual budget blueprint to become law with a simple majority vote, rather than being subject to a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome. Naturally, the members of the minority party grouse about its use — until they have reclaimed power.

“Is there something wrong with ‘majority rules’?” former Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, once said of the reconciliation process when his party controlled the Senate. “I don’t think so.”

Here’s a look at some of the times the process was used — and what members of both parties had to say about it at the time.

2017: Republicans used it to enact Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut and to try to repeal the health care law.

After Donald J. Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans who controlled the House and the Senate were unapologetic about their plans to use the reconciliation process to pass a huge tax cut and roll back the Affordable Care Act.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the majority leader, previewed the move before any attempt was made to enlist Democratic support, anticipating there would be none.

“We will need to use reconciliation” for taxes, he said in 2017, confirming his decision in the face of Democratic complaints by saying the minority party was “not interested in addressing” Republicans’ priorities.

“I don’t think this is going to be 1986, when you had a bipartisan effort to scrub the code,” Mr. McConnell said then, referring to a major tax overhaul enacted with Republican and Democratic support.

The effort to repeal parts of the health care law ultimately failed when Republicans could not muster 50 of their own members to push it through over Democratic opposition. Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, called the effort “a totally inappropriate use of the budget reconciliation process.”

The party also railed against using the process for tax cuts.

“We saw the trouble of going at it alone with health care,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, then the minority leader, told reporters. “If they decide to cut Democrats out of the process and do it by themselves, the same thing is likely to await them.”

But that time, Republicans were successful. The tax legislation became law in December 2017, over unanimous Democratic opposition.

2010: Democrats resisted using it to pass the Affordable Care Act, but resorted to it for crucial aspects.

After President Barack Obama took office promising a major health care overhaul, Democrats in control of the Senate left themselves the option of using reconciliation to force it through, but resisted doing so, fearing that it would be practically difficult and politically toxic.

Instead, they engaged in a painstaking set of negotiations aimed at finding 60 votes in support of the measure, ultimately succeeding by Christmas Eve of 2009.

But before they could finish the bill and send it to Mr. Obama for his signature, Democrats lost their Senate supermajority after Scott Brown, a Republican state senator, won an election in early 2010 to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

So they activated their fail-safe, using reconciliation to pass crucial revisions to the Affordable Care Act, including changes to Medicare prescription drug coverage and tax provisions.

Republicans protested.

“Reconciliation has never, ever been abused to the extent that it is today,” Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, then the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, said at the time.

2001 and 2003: Republicans used it to enact the Bush tax cuts.

Once President George W. Bush took office in 2001, Republicans used reconciliation to push forward with the $1.35 trillion tax cut that he had campaigned on.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and then the chairman of the Finance Committee, said at the time that, given that his party did not have 60 votes in support of the measure, the process was “the way it will have to be done in order to get it done at all.”

The same was true in 2003, when Republicans muscled another $350 billion worth of tax cuts through Congress via reconciliation. Democrats were outraged, even refusing to allow Senate leaders to correct a clerical error in the bill to press their point.

Senator Kent Conrad of South Dakota, then the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said Republicans were trying to “abuse reconciliation.”

1981: Ronald Reagan used it to shrink the role of the federal government.

President Ronald Reagan used the reconciliation process to slash the federal budget and to change or repeal significant portions of New Deal and Great Society policies enacted by Democratic administrations.

Some conservative Democrats — lobbied feverishly by the president and inclined to fiscal restraint — joined Republicans supporting the package. But other Democrats accused their Republican counterparts of hijacking the legislative process to fast-track sweeping changes that deserved more consideration.

“We are dealing with more than 250 programs with no hearings, no deliberation, no debate,” said Representative Leon E. Panetta, Democrat of California, who sat on the Budget Committee at the time.

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