Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just pulled off somewhat of a coup, in getting five Republicans to vote for a Democratic bill. And he may get two related bills passed in the next few days. This is news for two reasons. One, the Senate hasn't been doing much of anything for the past six months; and two, it's the first "bipartisanship" in recent memory.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Chris, it is way too early for baseball metaphors!" You are correct. It is. But "smallball" is the only metaphor which sprang to mind, even in advance of spring training. There's probably a hockey term I should have used, but I don't watch hockey much, so there you are.
When Harry Reid announced last week that he was torpedoing a bipartisan jobs bill, a lot of people were left scratching their heads. Why would Reid not want a bill that could have gotten (reportedly, I make no claim this figure is accurate) 70 or even 80 votes in the Senate? The stated reason was the bipartisan bill was really "tripartisan" -- so heavily laden with pork from lobbyists that they would have had to be acknowledged as a third party in the negotiations. Both Republicans and Democrats were screaming at Harry when he tossed out their $85 billion bill in favor of a stripped-down $15 billion targeted bill. The media even got on board, by labeling Harry's new bill "favored by Senate liberals," when that really wasn't the case.
I personally reserved judgment, and waited to see what actually happened. Yesterday, Harry's bill got 62 votes, including five Republican votes. The brave leader of this pack of Republican aisle-jumpers was none other than Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts, who campaigned on being number "41" as in the definitive vote to filibuster Democrats. Instead, he was the effective 60th vote for the Democrats, during his first important vote.
Reid is going to follow this up with a bill to extend unemployment insurance payments, which is a critical bill because it has a deadline of the end of the month (if not passed, the payments stop). He is reportedly going to split this into two bills, one which extends the deadline 30 days, and a bigger bill with some unfinished business from last year, mostly extending tax breaks which Republicans favor. He's negotiating what will be in these with Republican leaders, which is interesting because it could signify both bills will pass fairly easily.
In other words, Reid's risky strategy of playing smallball seems to be working. Smallball, for those of you unaware of baseball strategy, is a single word (as far as I'm concerned... hmmph) defined as: "trying for singles, rather than swinging for the fences to get homeruns." You patiently manufacture runs by singles, bunts, stealing bases, and other minor tactics. Whatever it takes, in other words, to get a runner around the bases and across the plate... even if it isn't all that crowd-pleasing.
This may be exactly what Reid -- and his party -- need right now. Because the focus has been almost exclusively on the massive health reform bill in the Senate for the past nine or ten months, not much else has gotten done. And since progress on the health bill was of an all-or-nothing nature, it was glacially slow.
Meaning there are some things worth doing which could be handled in smaller, more targeted legislation now. And perhaps Reid is trying this new strategy out on the jobs bills this week. So far, it's been pretty successful, but it's still too soon to really tell.
President Obama himself may have been the impetus for Reid's decision to go small for a while. Obama repeatedly, in his first State Of The Union address to Congress, praised the House of Representatives for its action on bills, while castigating the Senate for not getting as much done. A recent list from Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership shows 290 bills the House has already passed which are waiting for Senate action. The message was clear, from two sides of the legislative triangle: it's not the White House's fault things aren't getting done, and it's not the House's fault either -- it's the Senate where good Democratic ideas go to die.
Reid needs some victories, in other words. While it's true that he has the most difficult job of the three (due to the 60-vote supermajority Republicans demand on virtually everything these days), it's also true that Reid is not just at risk of losing Democratic senators this November, he is also in danger of losing his own job. The only way to improve his image, and that of Democrats in general, is to get some things done, and get some much-needed good press.
By playing smallball, Reid is apparently gambling that he can get more legislation actually passed, that he can succeed in peeling off Republican votes while doing so, and as an added benefit can get good press for doing so.
Now, this is merely one week and one bundle of legislation. Reid could change course at any time. But so far, I have to say, Reid appears to be moving runners around the bases. You can quibble with his tactics, or grumble that each individual bill didn't contain everything you wanted it to. But nothing breeds success like success, so let's see if Reid can keep this rally going.
One thing is for sure, it is the most positive thing I've seen happening in the Senate in a long time. And while, during that long period, I have admittedly taken plenty of potshots at Reid for his leadership skills, I have to give the man credit where credit is due. And getting five Republican senators to vote for anything these days -- especially in an election year -- deserves a little credit. Let's just hope Reid can build on this success in the weeks ahead.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant