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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why It’s Critical to Prevent a Republican Trifecta

Democrats are obviously focused on defeating Donald Trump in November. But if they don’t, hanging onto the Senate will be tough, and the consequences of allowing a Republican trifecta are very significant, as I explained at New York:

Donald Trump’s circle of advisers is developing an elaborate and menacing set of policies that might be imposed by executive order in a second Trump presidency. It’s clear MAGA-land is eager to expand presidential powers to and beyond Nixonian levels with or without any permission slips from Congress. But all things being equal, Trump and his cronies would prefer a compliant Congress that gives them the maximum legal authority to kick ass and take names. That will first require Republican control of Congress, which is a pretty good bet if Trump wins the presidential race (the GOP is narrowly favored to retain control of the House and more strongly favored to flip the Senate).

If Republicans do win a trifecta (as they did in 2016, and as Democrats did in 2020), they will unlock the magic of “budget reconciliation” as a way to package and (with luck and skill) enact much of what Trump and his congressional allies can agree on in one huge bill.

Reconciliation is a device created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 and was first used extensively by Ronald Reagan in 1981. It creates a path around the filibuster powers that normally give the Senate minority (so long as it commands 40 votes) a veto on controversial legislation and the leverage to compel compromises on “must-have” bills. It also speeds up the timetable for congressional consideration of its contents and can cover a broad swath of subjects so long as they have a direct impact on spending and revenue levels. It’s how Republicans enacted the Trump tax cuts of 2017 and how Democrats enacted both the American Rescue Plan of 2021 (a.k.a. Biden’s stimulus package) and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (originally dubbed “Build Back Better”).

Reconciliation was also the vehicle for the last big Republican legislative failure: the bid in 2017 to repeal and replace Obamacare, which failed twice in the Senate because the GOP could not nail down its own lawmakers or flip any Democrats. That was a bitter source of disappointment; prior to the 2016 elections, then–House Speaker Paul Ryan referred to reconciliation as a “bazooka in my pocket” that would destroy the institutional obstacles to his much-desired demolition of key elements of the welfare state.

Now Ryan’s successor, Mike Johnson, is thinking about how to avoid the 2017 failure and make maximum use of the “bazooka” that is now in his pocket, as the Washington Times reported:

“House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Republicans met Wednesday to begin discussions on a policy agenda they can muscle through Congress next year if their party has full control in Washington.

“Central to the developing GOP agenda is renewing a significant chunk of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that is set to expire in 2025. But Mr. Johnson is urging Republicans to think bigger than extending those tax breaks and look at a wider swath of policy areas that could be packed into a Senate filibuster-proof budget reconciliation package.

“Budget reconciliation is how Republicans and former President Donald Trump passed their 2017 tax law. But after watching Democrats use it to pass much broader legislation under President Biden — the 2021 coronavirus relief law known as the American Rescue Plan and the 2022 climate and tax law called the Inflation Reduction Act — Republicans want to do more if they control Congress and the White House.

“’The main idea is let’s think big,’ said Sen. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican.”

To put it another way, while it’s unclear whether Republicans would prefer to handle tax cuts and spending cuts in the same reconciliation bill, using the device to pay for the former via the latter goes without saying. And in terms of spending cuts, when Republicans talk about thinking big, that’s likely to involve a meat ax aimed at domestic programs, including those safety-net programs (consider Medicaid and Obamacare subsidies a permanent GOP target) that aren’t placed explicitly off-limits by Trump.

It’s clear today’s Republicans believe their 2017 predecessors blew a prime opportunity to make drastic changes in how the federal government operates, perhaps because so few of them actually thought Trump would win. This time around, they’re thinking ahead. So should Democrats. And the best way to deny a right-wing policy coup is to prevent a GOP trifecta.

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