Rather than simply splitting along party lines, lawmakers’ attitudes toward the deficit also depend on which party is in power. Republicans pilloried the Obama administration for proposing a large stimulus in the depths of the recession in 2009 and complained about the deficit for years.
In 2013, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the debt and deficit “the transcendent issue of our era.” By 2017, as Senate majority leader, he quickly shepherded the tax cut through Congress.
Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who warned of the deficit’s dangers in the past, nevertheless played down that threat on the Senate floor as the tax billed neared passage.
“I understand it’s a risk, but I think it’s an appropriate risk to be able to say let’s allow Americans to keep more of their own money to invest in this economy,” he said.
He also claimed the tax cuts would pay for themselves even as the Congressional Budget Office estimated that they would add $250 billion to the deficit on average from 2019 to 2024.
In an interview, Mr. Lankford insisted that the jury was still out on whether the tax cuts would generate additional revenue, citing the strong economic growth recently.
While the Republican about-face has been much more striking, Democrats have adjusted their position, too.
Mr. Warner, the Virginia Democrat, called last year’s tax bill “the worst piece of legislation we have passed since I arrived in the Senate.” In 2009, however, when Congress passed an $800 billion stimulus bill backed by the Obama administration, he called it “a responsible mix of tax cuts and investments that will create jobs.”
The difference, Mr. Warner said, was that the economy was near the precipice then.
“There was virtual unanimity among economists that we needed a stimulus,” he said. “But a $2 trillion tax cut at the end of a business cycle with borrowed money won’t end well.”