Kevin Drum reminds everyone of how brief that supermajority in the Senate really was:
Until Al Franken was sworn in on July 7, the Democratic caucus in the Senate stood at 59. After that it was technically up to 60, but Ted Kennedy hadn't cast a vote in months and was housebound due to illness. He died a few weeks later and was replaced by Paul Kirk on September 24, finally bringing the Democratic majority up to 60 in practice as well as theory. After that the Senate was in session for 11 weeks before taking its winter recess, followed by three weeks until Scott Brown won Kennedy's seat in the Massachusetts special election...there's a very limited amount you can do in the Senate in 14 weeks.Of course, the problem for the Democrats with their own disappointed constituencies is that "we only had 14 weeks" sounds pretty lame as an excuse, even if it is true. And of course another part of the problem is that the Democrats didn't realize until very late in the game that they were working under a 14 week deadline, since none of them took seriously the possibility that Republicans would win the Massachusetts Senate seat; that's to some extent their fault, but also to some extent excusable.
So what did they do with that 14 weeks? Well, they moved to the health care bill just before Thanksgiving, and basically stayed on it for the rest of the year. That's five of the fourteen weeks, right there, and whatever some liberals think about the bill or the choice to put health care before climate, surely no one thinks that was wasted time.
What else did they do? Lots of routine, but important, stuff. Appropriations bills. Nominations. Those things have to be done (indeed, they didn't do enough nominations in my view), and they take time. The week that ended with cloture on the motion to proceed to health care, the Senate passed a noncontroversial veteran's bill; took a cloture and final vote on a nomination; and completed work on an appropriations bill. The week before that they did an unemployment benefits extension, the "HIRE Act" jobs bill, and more nominations. That's November. In October...I won't do it week-by-week, but it was mostly more of the same: appropriations, nominations, and earlier work on the jobs bill and unemployment extension. (I'm just looking at bills that required votes; they do process plenty of noncontroversial stuff without votes, but that's not relevant to the question of what the Dems did within their 60 vote window, although it's possible that some of the things that were passed and noncontroversial when the GOP didn't have the votes to stop them might have been blocked after the 41st Republican showed up).
Could they have scheduled a few more things? Perhaps, but not much. My biggest complaint was that they could have used their window to push through more nominations, especially once the window was in danger of closing. Large legislation, such as cap-and-trade or immigration? No way. not enough time, even if the votes were there. Smaller bills? Yes, that was possible, especially by adding those things to other bills that were going to be passed anyway. If, that is, they really had the votes. So I think complaints about DADT or DREAM Act (could have been done quickly enough as stand-alone bills or added to something else) are a lot more legitimate than complaints about comprehensive immigration or energy/climate. There just wasn't the time for those two.
Of course, the next question is whether it's reasonable to blame the Dems (or Barack Obama in particular) because they couldn't hold their last couple of votes, or because they made an error in assuming they would hold Ted Kennedy's seat and thus had plenty of time to work through their agenda. I'm a bit agnostic on this, specifically on DADT repeal. On the one hand, I thought that Obama's take-it-slow, build-a-consensus strategy was a smart one; indeed, I still think repeal is more likely by 2012 than if Obama made it a priority item in spring 2009, without doing the groundwork at the Pentagon, and lost. On the other hand, I do understand the frustration of repeal supporters. One of the dangers of coalition politics, or party politics, is that your issue will wind up further down the list of coalition priorities than you would like, and I think that's certainly the case here in a sense: surely, if DADT repeal was as important to the Democrats as passing health care or the stimulus, then it would have passed. Beyond that, things get murky...it's awful hard to know whether one's group would be better off threatening to bolt (or actually bolting), and when it's best to charge ahead and try to move up the priority list by demonstrating loyalty and the ability to bring assets to the party.