As the dust settles on the aftermath of the health reform summit held yesterday by President Barack Obama and attended by leaders of both parties in Congress, not much has changed. Not that anyone really expected anything to change, much, to be honest.
The media has mostly chalked the whole debate up as a tie. Normally, they'll stick their necks out and say one side "won" or "lost," but my sneaking suspicion is that a lot of the talking heads just don't have the attention span to sit through seven hours of politicians talking. So maybe calling it a "tie" was the easy way out for them.
Now, many have parsed this meeting as political theater or "Obama playing chess while Republicans play checkers" or other political constructs. But personally, I think people are missing something here. Because I think that Barack Obama really does believe in bipartisanship. He keeps offering a hand across the aisle, and it keeps getting smacked down, but I think that the effort to get everyone on board is a core part of Obama's personality, and not some sort of political trick or theater or campaign slogan. I also think this may be Obama's biggest weakness, politically (even though he likely sees it as a political strength). But the more I watch him, the more I become convinced that this is a big philosophical deal to Obama, and that he should be seen as both honest and true to himself for trying. Even if it does come off as naive or politically meaningless, in terms of actual results.
In any case, while the political theater aspect of the meeting was indeed shiny and distracting for the inside-the-Beltway set, we now must look to what comes next. And what comes next (if the bill has any hope of passing) is budget reconciliation. But we'll get to that fight in a bit, here. Because there is some late-breaking news from the Senate which Democrats could use as a gigantic political bludgeon against Republicans all weekend long in interviews.
I speak, of course, of Senator Jim Bunning, Republican from Kentucky, who just successfully blocked extending unemployment benefits to over a million people. These benefits will expire Sunday unless Congress acts. Bunning refused to let the Senate act. Singlehandedly, Bunning stopped a bill in its tracks which would have kept the unemployment checks flowing.
This, if Democrats use it properly, could be as big as Newt Gingrich shutting down the government. Especially since Bunning's move stopped a lot of other things in the bill as well, including COBRA benefits and even local television channels being available in rural areas next Monday (now there's something to get some red state voters' attention -- rural television service disappearing because of Republicans in Congress refusing to act!). Bunning's stated opposition to the bill was that he wanted to pay for it by taking money out of the stimulus money passed last year, in a fit of fiscal responsibility, instead of "passing costs on to future generations." Worth noting is that Bunning is retiring this year, and therefore does not have to worry about what the voters have to say about his actions.
Once again, here is an enormous present, handed to Democrats on a silver platter. Let's hope that Democrats don't (once again) ignore the present itself, and wind up on the floor playing with the shiny wrapping paper and the empty box.
Democrats should be loudly denouncing Bunning's move to the high heavens, every chance they get over the next few days. Bring it up no matter what the subject -- you can always tie it in to "Congressional gridlock" or "Republican obstructionism" or "this is why nothing gets done in Washington."
Seriously, this one is so easy to paint as Democrats being on the side of the angels, fighting off Republican demons. The talking points just write themselves, guys and gals. Compare Bunning to the Clinton/Gingrich showdown -- every chance you get. Wax indignant over the plight of the unemployed whose checks will now stop because one Republican senator didn't get his way. Ask Republicans if this is what they mean by "deficit reduction" and "fiscal responsibility" -- holding over a million families' immediate financial future hostage in a senatorial snit. Decry "parliamentary tricks" that let one single senator anonymously hold up any legislation they feel like. Repeat after me: Republican obstructionism. Party of No. Republicans don't care about the unemployed. Republicans don't care about families. Republicans are more interested in playing politics than doing what is right. People's lives are at stake, but Republicans don't care.
There's a very basic lesson here, one that Democrats just never seem to learn. The lesson is: Republicans have no shame about using every advantage the rules allow. They also have no fear of any political consequences whatsoever, because Democrats never call them on it in any meaningful way. Republicans don't even think twice about doing this stuff, because Democrats seem fundamentally incapable of playing hardball -- even when Republicans taunt Democrats and dare them to do so.
If handled correctly, this could be a watershed moment for Democrats, on who really cares about the American public and who does not. Once again, Newt Gingrich went so far as to shut the entire federal government down, because he thought he would emerge from the fray with a political victory. He did not, and Clinton did. But the only reason that happened is because of public opinion. And public opinion is a pump that needs priming. The next few days will show whether Democrats are even capable of doing so, because the Republicans have just served up a golden opportunity on a silver platter. Opportunity is not just knocking on this one, it has in fact broken down the Democrats' front door with a sledgehammer, and is now bashing them about the ears in a whirling frenzy of opportunitastical splendor.
To put it an even more colorful way, the Republicans are collectively bent over in front of the Democrats, waving their collective hindquarters in the Democrats' faces, with a giant "KICK ME!" sign painted on the metaphorical GOP buttocks, all the while screaming: "I dare you! Do it!" at the tops of their lungs. All that is required is for Democrats to summon the energy to lift their collective foot a few feet off the floor and do so. C'mon guys -- if you blow this one, you deserve to lose Congress this year -- both houses! Sheesh.
Here's the "kicker" which should prove irresistible -- Bunning's response, on the floor of the Senate, to Democrats upset with his actions: "Tough shit!" If you can't make political hay out of that one, you simply should not be in the field of politics in the first place. "Bunning says tough 'crap' to the unemployed!" How hard is that? Get out there in front of the cameras and say so!
No! No! Not the shiny paper! Not the cardboard box! Ignore the distractions! Stay on message!
Sigh. Well, we'll see....
While President Obama had a pretty good week taking charge of the process in the health reform battle by both introducing his own outline for the bill and by holding the meeting with the congressional leadership -- a bold and unprecedented move -- it really would have qualified for Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week for a week in, say, last September. That would have been a dandy time to get Republicans around a table, done the bipartisan exercise, and then started threatening reconciliation. This opportunity to (as the White House apparently likes to call things nowadays) be a "game-changer" has mostly passed, though. While Obama's actions this week did resuscitate the effort, the reason the effort was almost dead in the first place is that it has taken far too long to get to this point. Meaning that Obama's actions, while welcome, simply weren't all that impressive this week, due to their belated timing.
But, in a decision that surprises even the judging panel ourselves, this week instead Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wins the coveted MIDOTW award. Harry did a good job sticking up for the concept of reconciliation (more on this in a bit) in the meeting with Obama, which was kind of impressive, but the real reason he wins this week's award is that he got a jobs bill through a filibuster attempt and passed it with 70 votes, including 13 Republicans. I wrote earlier this week about Reid's new strategy for moving legislation in more detail, if anyone's interested. And then Reid really clinched the prize this week by refusing to knuckle under to Jim Bunning, and "calling his bluff" as it were by adjourning on schedule, after a late session Thursday night that ground to a halt due to Bunning.
Look for Republicans to try spinning this one all weekend as somehow Harry Reid's fault -- unsuccessfully. Because Harry Reid is showing signs of spinal fortitude this week, which is a relief since he's going to need quite a bit of it when the health reform reconciliation battle begins anew.
So we salute Majority Leader Reid this week with the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, and sincerely wish him many more such performances in the upcoming few weeks. Well done, Harry!
[Congratulate Majority Leader Harry Reid on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
Hoo boy, this one's easy this week.
In a split decision, two Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards must be handed out this week, to Governor David Paterson of New York, and to Representative Charlie Rangel.
It's so obvious this week, that I will merely provide links to the reason why Paterson will not be running to retain his governorship (it can't be called "re-election" since he was never elected to the position in the first place, but merely took over when another Democrat got mired in scandal), and to Rangel's ongoing ethical problems.
Paterson, to his minimal credit, realized his political career was over, and took the gentleman's way out. Nobody expects Rangel to step down from his powerful House committee chairmanship, though, so in the Olympic spirit I'll award the MDDOTW "gold" to Rangel, and only a MDDOTW "silver" to Paterson.
Volume 113 (2/26/10)
Getting health reform passed has so far been like a marathon, I think we can all agree on that at this point. But actually finishing this race has turned out to take an excruciatingly long time. It's as if you're running a marathon, and you get to the last quarter-mile of the run -- only to find out it has been replaced with a full-on Iron Man Triathlon, instead of an easy jog across the finish line.
In any case, the media has woken up and discovered what the blogosphere has been talking about since around October or so (some even earlier) -- the procedure known as "budget reconciliation." Because this is pretty much the only avenue left to get a health reform bill passed this year -- and because the media are just waking up to the possibility and are therefore impressionable -- Republicans are about to light into it like a buzz saw.
Democrats need to be able to counter this full-scale rhetorical attack. They need to be prepared for it, because it has already begun.
Republicans are attempting to define (in the media, the only place that counts, frame-wise) the process as "a parliamentary trick" which is "bending the rules" and "jamming legislation through" or "unprecedented" or 32 other flavors of nonsense.
Democrats need to smack this down, fast, before it takes hold in the blowdried skulls of the media. Fortunately, this is easy. One-by-one:
"It's no more a parliamentary trick than the filibusters Republicans are using."
"Filibusters are a Senate rule. Reconciliation is a Senate rule. One rule is there to counteract the abuse of the other, which is precisely what we are going to use it to do. Both rules are equal -- it's not like one is cheating and one isn't."
"Remember when Republican senators kept chanting the term 'up-or-down vote' as in 'give us an up-or-down vote' -- only a few short years ago? I guess they've changed their tune. Since they began, filibusters have been used by Senate minorities and reconciliation by Senate majorities. The other side always complains, that's just the way things work."
"Since reconciliation came into being, Republicans have used it approximately three times as often as Democrats. We're just trying to catch up, since they've shown that it should be used whenever needed."
"Republicans claim it is unprecedented to use reconciliation for purposes other than what it was intended for. This is nonsense. Republicans tried to rewrite our country's energy policy this way. Republicans turned the purpose of reconciliation on its head when they used it to pass massive tax cuts for rich folks. Instead of balancing the budget, they destroyed the budget and created the deficit we now face. And as for health-related bills, the children's health insurance SCHIP bill was passed this way, as was COBRA -- it's right there in the acronym, look it up if you don't believe me, the 'R' in COBRA stands for Reconciliation."
See? It's not that hard. In fact, it's really easy. But instead of creating a bunch more of those, instead -- for the first time ever, I believe -- I am turning over the talking points part of the program to Republicans. That's right -- the entire rest of the column will be Republican quotes.
Because while they're up so high on their sanctimonious horse right now, Republicans were singing a quite different tune when they had a majority (but not a 60-vote supermajority). Oh, yes, indeedy. A different tune altogether.
So here are Republicans, from only a few years ago, making the case for using reconciliation. [I apologize for not providing links for some of these, as I got them off Lexis/Nexis, which is a subscription site.]
Representative Eric Cantor (now House Minority Whip), quoted by Senator Barbara Boxer
The Rachel Maddow Show -- 2/24/10
"Reconciliation is a process I hope we can engage in every year."
Senator Judd Gregg
The Rachel Maddow Show -- 2/24/10
"We are using the rules of the Senate here. That's what they are, Senator. Reconciliation is a rule of the Senate. All this rule of the Senate does is allow a majority of the Senate to take a position and pass a piece of legislation, support that position. Now, is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so."
Senator Judd Gregg, quoted "on the floor in March 2005"
St. Petersburg Times -- 4/4/09
"Reconciliation is a rule of the Senate (that) has been used before for purposes exactly like this on numerous occasions. Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so. ... The point, of course, is this: If you have 51 votes for your position, you win."
Senator Pete Domenici
Washington Times -- 3/6/05
"There are some who oppose ANWR who feel that in order for it to happen it must have 60 votes. This way, under the reconciliation -- and I have done this before -- the supporters and opposers have an equal chance."
Senator Pete Domenici
New York Times -- 3/9/05
''The people who are for this, ANWR, have to have 51 votes. The people who are against it can take it out with 51 votes. All we're saying is, that seems pretty American, pretty fair.''
Senator Pete Domenici
[Press conference transcript] -- 7/29/05
"We have tried bringing it to the floor of the Senate subject to the rules of filibuster, and we have never gotten it through. We've always missed by a couple of votes, always getting more than 50. So, on September the 13th, there will be a reconciliation bill -- I don't have to explain that to you, but I will. It's a direction to my committee -- to our committee, the Energy Committee -- to save money through the raising of revenue, which happens to follow the revenue stream expected by ANWR. We will be able, then, to put an ANWR bill into reconciliation. Reconciliation will be put together with all the other pieces and go to the floor and there will be no filibuster allowed. It will be minimally amendable, if at all. And if that package goes to the floor, we will get ANWR. The president is satisfied with it. The House is satisfied with it. And I guess I could say, if we're going to get ANWR -- and that's what I want -- but if we're going to -- everybody doesn't want that -- that's the way to do it, not putting it on this bill. If we put it on this bill, we wouldn't be here today. There will be a filibuster and we'd get about 58 votes. So that's the answer."
Senator Bill Frist (then Senate Majority Leader), when asked about using reconciliation
[Press conference transcript] -- 12/21/05
"But I do want to make it clear that no matter what happens today, no rules are going to be broken. The United States Senate, as all of you know and America understands, is governed by about 45 pages -- or maybe 70 pages of rules and about 1,500, 2,000 pages of precedent. What we will do -- whatever we do today is going to be consistent with those rules and precedents in the future. No rules would be broken."
Senator Chuck Grassley, "Senate Floor Statement"
Media Matters -- 4/28/05
"...the reconciliation option is an important tool to have at our disposal."
Senator Ted Stevens
[Press conference transcript] -- 3/16/05
Q: The question is that you couldn't try to break this out of the reconciliation package, but can you only do it in the reconciliation -- (off mike)?
SENATOR TED STEVENS: You know, there's no lesson out of a second kick of a mule. We've tried for 24 years to get it down there and get it signed in another way. This, we think, we'll get -- when we get it down there, we'll get signed.
Q: (Off mike) --
STEVENS: And my friend, it's called an election. We won the election. And we promised we'd do this when we won that election, and that -- that's meaningful to me.
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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant