The Corner

Ryan Deal Limits Senate GOP’s Power to Block Tax Increases

Senate Republicans scrubbing the Ryan-Murray budget deal have come across a little-noticed provision that will limit the GOP’s ability to block tax increases in future years.

The bill includes language from the Senate Democrats’ budget that voids senators’ ability to raise a budget “point of order” against replacing the sequester cuts with tax increases.

The process is quite complicated, but in practice it grants Harry Reid the authority to send tax increases to the House with a bare majority, rather than the 60-vote threshold that would be required under a point of order.

The provision has angered key Republican senators. Reeling from Harry Reid’s unprecedented use of the “nuclear option” to end the filibuster on executive-branch nominations, they are dismayed that Paul Ryan would have backed another limit to their power.

“This is an appalling power grab that should never have been allowed to be in a final agreement. It’s essentially the ‘nuclear option’ part two, eroding minority rights in the Senate even further. Harry Reid must be very happy,” a Senate GOP aide says.

A House aide says Reid can send tax bills to the House all he wants, since they will never fly in the lower chamber. “House Republicans would never approve a tax increase,” he says.

While that’s true, the change will likely give Reid a potent political cudgel to hit Republicans, since passage of one bill can put pressure on the other chamber to take it up.

In the Ryan-Murray bill, the change is found on pages 17 to 18 in the legislative text, where the bill sets up a “deficit neutral reserve fund” and incorporates 57 individual sections of the Senate Democrats’ budget as having “force and effect.”

These provisions are a big loophole for PAYGO rules that give senators the authority to raise a point of order on spending and tax bills, creating a 60-vote threshold. There is a detailed explanation for the process in this 2009 document from then-senator Judd Gregg’s staff when he was the ranking member on the Budget Committee. 

Although the (current) Senate rules generally require 60 votes for passage of a bill, a bill can be amended after cloture has been achieved. In the case of the fall shutdown fight, Republicans helped provide the 60 votes to obtain cloture on the CR, after which Reid took out the defund-Obamacare provision and passed the bill with a bare majority.

Under normal rules, even after cloture had been achieved, any amendment would still be subject to points of order and a 60-vote threshold if it “pays for” spending increases by raising taxes. The Ryan-Murray deal waives that point of order in many cases, prompting the fear that Reid will use it to put political pressure on the House to replace the sequester with new taxes.

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