12/09/2010 08:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Untold Story of the Tax Deal

Washington, D.C. -- The Senate Democrats actually had the votes they needed to pass unemployment extenders and middle-class tax cuts -- if they had used the Senate rules as if they wanted to win. Tax and spending changes like these are immune to filibusters as long as the Senate, by a majority vote, chooses to use the Budget Reconciliation process.

That's how the Bush tax cuts were enacted in the first place -- because Bush didn't have 60 votes for them in the Senate, either. Indeed, getting 60 votes for a fiscal measure is difficult in any political climate, which is precisely why Congress in 1974 adopted a bill that allowed the Senate to act on budgetary matters using a simple majority.

Republicans have historically been the biggest fans -- and the most skilled deployers -- of this process. Indeed, the original Reagan budget package in 1981 was also passed using Budget Reconciliation because, as then Senate majority leader Howard Baker put it: "Congress was able to consider President Reagan's economic program as a whole, resistant to the type of special interest pressures that would have scuttled the savings if they had been proposed in piecemeal fashion."

So both the Reagan and the Bush economic programs were enacted by the Senate on a simple majority vote. The Democrats could have, and apparently considered, doing the same thing in this lame-duck session. They could have packed unemployment compensation and other fiscal-stimulus extenders along with the middle-class portion of the Bush tax cuts and passed them. But that would have required Democratic senators to play hardball and operate by majority rule -- something too many of them have been afraid of doing for two years. There's no evidence that President Obama used his bully pulpit to pressure them to use the only procedure under which Congress has ever managed to behave in a fiscally rational fashion -- so he's not off the hook, but neither is he the only culprit.