Thursday, October 29, 2009


I tend, as regular readers will have noticed, to be pretty generous in my interpretations of a lot of politicians' actions, particularly the president. When people were on Obama's case for not speaking out enough on health care in August, or for not doing enough to publicly pressure Reid on public option this month, I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt -- given his track record, I tend to think he probably sees the board better than we do.

Here's an exception, however: nominations. I think he's made a real mistake in not elevating the GOP filibuster-everyone strategy into a more visible issue. I'm glad to see (via Benen, who also approves) Harry Reid blasting the filibusters today, but realistically it takes the president to get anyone to pay attention to something like this.

I'd like to see a two-pronged approach. First, Obama should pick a quiet week (yeah, I know) and light a little fire on this one. He should have done it months ago -- Obama has little to lose in labeling the GOP as obstructionists, since (1) they are, and (2) he isn't going to lose any votes on the Senate floor by calling them on it. But, second, I'd like to see the Democrats, in the face of this unprecedented situation, threaten the GOP that if they don't dial it back considerably, the Dems are going to start ignoring holds and simply steamrolling cloture through on everyone.
The trade-off would be that it's totally legit for Republicans to use holds and filibusters against some nominees (judicial particularly, but executive branch nominees as well), but it's now way out of hand. So Reid should announce that if the GOP doesn't scale way back on obstructing nominees, the Dems are going to agree internally to just vote for cloture on all nominees.

The question is whether Nelson, Lincoln, Lieberman, Bayh, and the others would go along with it. I think the odds are they would. After all, it's the threat that counts here -- the idea isn't to force marginal Dems to support controversial nominees, but to get the GOP to stop slowing down non-controversial nominees, which is surely what they're doing now. So promise the marginal Dems that Reid won't actually move ahead on the most controversial nominees right away, as long as the Dems are willing to put up a solid, 60 vote front. Hey, it's not even impossible that Snowe, Collins, Voinovich, and Lugar couldn't get on board; certainly it would be worth it to send Ben Nelson over to poke around a bit.

Holds and filibusters, in my view, both have legitimate places in the political system. It's a good thing that individual Senators can force presidents to address some narrow interest by grinding a nomination or a bill to a temporary halt; it's a good thing to slow down presidents and narrow majorities of the Senate if they try to take radical steps without being able to sell those steps to the broader middle. It is not, however, a good thing to have two branches of the government running at half-speed for an extended period of time -- not because the president was stubbornly sending up nominees that aren't suitable, but because the opposition party has just decided to block 'em all. On this one, and since the votes are there, I think the president and the Democratic leadership in the Senate have been far too patient.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that it is a very big deal that the Senate has gradually become a body where 60 votes are needed to do anything.

    This combines with the constitutional allocation of two Senators per state fundamentally biases the body toward smaller states that historically tend to be conservative.

    The combined effect is that the Senate is a body that is hostile to liberal action.

    Not much can be done about the Constitution. The votes aren't there and never will be. But the 60-vote thing is just rules. After the health care vote oughtn't the Democrats go ahead and do the nuclear option and change the rules to weaken the filibuster to the point where it is again rarely used?


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