Wednesday, September 22, 2010

When It Was 60/Coalition Politics

Two topics here: questions about how the Democrats handled their temporary 60 seat supermajority, and some thoughts about party politics, issue advocacy, and DADT.

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'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.  


  1. You know what they should have done in that 14 weeks?


    They had 14 weeks to reform Senate rules so 60 isn't the new 50. And some very minor tweaks would have been required, not the all-out "nuclear option." A few of them were suggested by by Norm Ormstein not too long ago.

    But the Democrats didn't. Instead, I'm getting phone calls from the DSCC asking me for insanely ridiculous donations because "we have to get a filibuster proof majority" which is the very same claptrap I have been hearing since 2006.

    So I am just cynical enough to think that the Democrats, like the Republicans, are less interested in governing and more interested in fundraising and therefore do not have an incentive to fix what's truly broken.

    But, call me crazy ... you won't be the first....

  2. There are 50 million people without health insurance in this country and we're not doing f-all for them until 2014. Excuse me if I don't get up in arms over DADT affecting 1000 times fewer people.

    We're also getting played here. Why is DADT such a big deal to the gay white men who dominate the discourse on these issues when it primarily affects lesbians and minorities?

    The Democratic party will spill blood to pass gay rights legislation, and then rich, gay white men will be able to vote Republican with a clear conscience and say that the Dems never did anything for them. Excuse me if I don't fall in line behind them today.

  3. "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..."

    You provide absolutely no evidence that Obama did try to build a consensus, or indeed had a strategy at all. You provide no evidence because there isn't any. It wasn't until over a year after he took office, and people began really hammering him for not being the "fierce advocate" for gay people that he promised to be, that he even began formulating the idiotic DADT repeal "compromise" which required the totally unnecessary study which all the Republicans could hide behind as a reason to filibuster the bill.

    Also, "build a consensus" and "strategy" imply that he was actually trying to win people over and get this done. But on the day that the Senate was voting for this bill, Obama was busy congratulating a women's basketball team. Servicemembers United noted that he did no last-minute lobbying of Senators. And he made no pronouncements except through a very low-level aide.

    Stop reflexively flattering Obama and the Democrats.

  4. "The Democratic party will spill blood to pass gay rights legislation"

    Cite, please.

  5. "build a consensus"? He could have used the 'bully pulpit' to do that, but instead has been passive/aggressive about the Democratic Platform of 2008. On Healthcare, it wasn't until it was threatened to go down in flames, that he started to campaign for it, and even then, it had been so brokered and watered down that the "consensus" he wanted to build is really a confused electorate which is still broken down via party lines in its support.

  6. Not only did Obama have a strategy, he told us EXPLICITLY what it was. A review due in December, followed by Congressional repeal.

    The impatient among us spit in his face and demanded ACTION. Well, we got ACTION all right. Instead of giving enough time and enough cover to get not one GOP vote, but maybe ten or 15, we got zip.

    Congratulations to the "activists" (I put that in quote because only a handful of people who have worked for gay rights for over a decade led this debacle for immediate attention.)

  7. @Matt


    All of the progress on state-level civil unions and gay marriage has come from Democrats and not Republicans. I looked at 14 state house
    and senate bills legalizing unions or marriage dating back to 1999, and 95% of Democrats voted for them, while just 12% of Republicans did. In some cases - California and Wisconsin - not one Republican voted for gay rights measures.

    Congressional Democrats voted for ENDA in 2007:

    Democrats House: 200-25, with 6 Democrats voting Nay because it excluded transgender people. Of the remaining 19, 15 were part of the "Blue Dog Caucus".

    Republicans House: 35-159
    Democrats Senate: 41-5
    Republicans Senate: 8-45


    Let me give you a parallel: my mom is 60, lost her job 18 months ago and has no health insurance. The Democrats passed a health care reform bill that allows her to buy 2014. It's nowhere near as generous as it should be and it keeps the insurance companies intact to do absolutely zero for us.

    From my perspective, the Democratic party wasn't committed to fully solving the problem on an acceptable timeline. So are they as bad or worse than the Republicans?

    Not a chance.

    Go ahead - you can lobby Democrats who have shown a tepid commitment to your cause, or you can join up with the bigots.


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