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Tilting at Windmills

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December 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE FILIBUSTER....One of the favorite tenets of the liberal blogosphere is that Harry Reid should quit playing by gentlemen's rules and call the GOP's obstructionist bluff. If Republicans want to filibuster everything short of Mother's Day resolutions, make 'em do it the old-fashioned Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington way, talking until their tonsils give out. A while back I spent some time trying to find out if this was actually practical, but the Senate rules turned out to be complex enough that I just couldn't figure it out.

But now I don't feel so bad. Time's Karen Tumulty decided to consult some experts, and it turns out they don't know either:

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution calls this idea impractical. Given the fact that Republicans could muster 41 people on most things to hold the floor, a real filibuster could go on interminably....But Norm Ornstein at the American Enterprise Insitute thinks Reid should call the Republicans' bluff, starting with holding the Senate in session five long days a week. "You have a different Senate now. Frankly, they're soft," says Ornstein. "If they had the backbone and the discipline to do it, it would work."

Crikey. Mann and Ornstein are (a) practically Siamese twins and (b) about as knowledgable on congressional rules and traditions as anyone this side of Robert Byrd. As one of Tumulty's emailers puts it, "Oh my God — Ornstein and Mann don't agree?! That's like a disagreement between Moses and Jesus. This is more complicated than I thought."

As near as I can tell, Reid does have the authority to demand a real honest-to-Capra filibuster. But then what? It all depends on who you listen to. Expert A says it would work. Expert B says no, the Republicans would just take turns speaking in between naps and the real pressure would be on Democrats, who have to keep meeting bleary-eyed quorum calls. Expert C says the problem is that it would bring all other Senate business to a halt, while Expert D says no, other business could proceed. And Expert E says it might work, but if Reid declares war on the Republicans they can start withholding unanimous consent on everything in sight, turning the whole place into a gigantic Sargasso Sea of legislative molasses.

And even if it did work, George Bush would just veto the resulting bills anyway and no one would care. Hell, Bush has now vetoed the SCHIP bill twice, and unless you're a major political junkie you didn't even know about the second go-around.

But the bottom line is this: if Mann and Ornstein disagree, then yes, this question is more complicated than we think. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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Fine. Bring other Senate biz to a halt. As the overturned veto of the water bill shows, if there's enough money in the right places, enough GOP senators will sit up and change their stripes.

Or if enough House GOPers are getting their pork bottled up, they'll complain to the Senate side.

Plus, if defense measures get bottled up, the Warmonger-in-Chief will even speak up.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on December 14, 2007 at 1:16 AM | PERMALINK

Is there anyone -- anyone at all -- who can explain to me in a simple, or at least easy-to-follow (since I'm not terribly bright), step-by-step way -- why it is that when the Republicans controlled the Senate -- by a very slim margin -- they could do whatever they wanted, and the Dem's couldn't even get the mic's to staty on, but now, when the Dem's hold the majority -- again, by a very slim margin -- the Rethugs can still do whatever they want, and the Dem's can't do a thing about it?
There has got to be some explanation, and I'd be very happy to give anyone however long it takes to get it to make some degree of sense...

Posted by: smartalek on December 14, 2007 at 1:21 AM | PERMALINK

doesn't sound like they disagree so much as they highlight different elements of the issue. nuance isn't necessarily complicated.

Posted by: billy on December 14, 2007 at 1:28 AM | PERMALINK

RIght now, everyone thinks the Democratic Congress isn't getting anything done. I thought the whole point of forcing real filibusters was to make it clear to everyone that the reason nothing is getting done is because of the Republicans.

Posted by: Nathan on December 14, 2007 at 1:45 AM | PERMALINK

smartalek: I'm not really trying to defend Reid and the Senate Dems here, but in fairness, the difference is that Republicans had (a) a real majority and (b) a president of their own party. Dems don't have a working majority in the Senate, and like it or not, in our political system it's the president who has the bully pulpit.

Maybe Reid & Co. could be more aggressive, but it really is true that the deck is stacked against them. There's no easy answer here.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on December 14, 2007 at 1:47 AM | PERMALINK

Whether they force an actual filibuster doesn't matter so much, really. What matters is that the damn Dems still haven't figured out a way to make the McConnellites look as bad as they are.

How about an old-fashioned move like, "Why do our good Republican friends want to stop 50 million Americans from getting a tax break?"

Keep it simple. Don't whine. Just state the facts and wonder why they want it that way. It's just old-fashioned street-smart politics.

When will the Dems find their inner Willie Stark?

And BTW, will they *ever* learn to stop saying "the president"? Why do they want to give that little mf all that legitimacy? But again, no street smarts. They lost it all a generation ago, or what they had disappeared with Wellstone.

Posted by: Altoid on December 14, 2007 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

Reid has the power to do whatever a Senate majority is willing to accept. Anything that comes out of the Senate with a majority vote is not going to be overturned by the courts for failure to follow Senate rules--the Senate is the sole judge of whether or not it's followed its own rules. If Reid says the filibuster is dead and the Senate reports out a bill on a 51-49 vote tomorrow without allowing a cloture vote, that bill goes to the House or President as appropriate, with no chance whatsoever that any whining about that fact has any legal effect.

Posted by: R Johnston on December 14, 2007 at 2:05 AM | PERMALINK

I will repeat what I said in an earlier thread on this subject:

The argument that almost everyone seems to be missing here is that this is asymmetric warfare. The Republicans don't care whether or not the business of government gets done (in fact, they prefer that it doesn't, by and large). The Democrats do care that the government functions, so for the latter to be obstructionist at the same level as the Republicans is not possible. They can't simply shut things down by refusing to pass budgets - the consequences to real people and the fundamental functions of government are too great. Anything else plays into the Repubs hands ("Continuing resolution for all of 2007 ? Why sure, means less effective government, and that's good!") The best that the Dems can do is (1) play defense (e.g. don't let them gut Social Security) and (2) occasionally force compromise by holding hostage something the Repubs **really** want (such as the Iraq supplemental or earmarks in exchange for actually getting a vote on an omnibus budget bill). Unfortunately, there is not that much that the Repubs want that badly; in addition,we have a President who, as a petulant child with veto power, is not inclined to compromise, even when many of the members of his own party want to make a deal.

Posted by: divF on December 14, 2007 at 2:09 AM | PERMALINK

When will the Dems find their inner Willie Stark?

They're too busy courting their inner Willy Loman.

Posted by: Disputo on December 14, 2007 at 2:15 AM | PERMALINK

The most important outcome of such a move would probably be how it is perceived by the voting public -- and that, in turn, depends on how the media will portray it.

As long as the media has a Republican bias, it's unlikely to help the Democrats.

Posted by: JS on December 14, 2007 at 2:17 AM | PERMALINK

The whole country already tuned out because the Dems have made no effort to put the Repugs in a bad light over any of the failed bills so far, or the preznit's vetoes.

Just ask anyone in the street what the repugs have thwarted or the preznit turned down. Do they know? I'd be surprised.

The Dems need to make an issue over something.

Posted by: notthere on December 14, 2007 at 2:41 AM | PERMALINK

If this is true, then the ONLY way the Democrats -- including the next Democratic President -- are ever going to get ANYTHING they want through again is to do something radical. And there are only two possibilities: either...

(1) Go ahead and force the GOP to filibuster the government into complete paralysis -- with a Democratic President trumpeting the fact to the people (assuming that the Flaccidocrats in the Senate are unwilling to do so) -- or...

(2) Drop the Nuclear Option and get rid of the filibuster completely. The latter is long overdue; but -- given the length of time during which the Democrats have been stupidly DEFENDING the filibuster in the past -- the only way it will probably get done is, again, for some new Democratic President to start bashing the hell out of it rhetorically. Obama has the imagination to do it, but does he have the guts/anger to do so? Hillary has the latter, but does she have the former?

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on December 14, 2007 at 3:06 AM | PERMALINK

I'm with smartalek on this one. I really don't see why this should be so hard:

1) Let the Republicans actually filibuster. When the Republicans had the majority, even the slightest hint that the Democrats might filibuster a bill unleashed a torrent of abuse accusing the Democrats of obstructionism and being, well, undemocratic, for not allowing an "up-or-down" vote.

Try this: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2002765072_alito27.html

"...But many Republicans have relished the idea of a Democratic-led filibuster, saying it helps them portray the minority party as obstructionist and beholden to left-leaning groups."

If the Republican filibuster fails, then:

2) Force the president to veto. At least the Dems can say, "Hey, we tried. Your president just doesn't care about [children, for example]."

Reid seems to think that the public understands why legislation is not being "up-or-down" voted on (he doesn't have 60 votes). But they don't. All they see is Democratic inaction. Forcing the Republicans to actually filibuster would change the public perception.

The Democrats want to pass honest-to-goodness legislation, and that's a good thing. Currently, however, that is just not going to happen. So they need to do the next best thing and that is to take a few plays out of the Republican book and score some political points.

What am I missing here (please, someone explain)?

Posted by: Sean on December 14, 2007 at 4:38 AM | PERMALINK

Sean says:
Reid seems to think that the public understands why legislation is not being "up-or-down" voted on (he doesn't have 60 votes). But they don't. All they see is Democratic inaction. Forcing the Republicans to actually filibuster would change the public perception.

The Democrats want to pass honest-to-goodness legislation, and that's a good thing. Currently, however, that is just not going to happen. So they need to do the next best thing and that is to take a few plays out of the Republican book and score some political points.

What am I missing here (please, someone explain)?

Nothing, my friend, absolutely nothing. The folks at DKos, MyDD, OpenLeft, etc. have been talking for an eon about "losing well," and their frustration that the Congressional Dems don't have a clue about this.

"Losing well" means that if you can't win outright, then lose in a manner that clearly shows the world who the good guys and the bad guys really are - that rallies the public to your side, because they can see that you're fighting as hard as you can for them against an opposition that doesn't give a flip for their well-being.

For instance: yesterday, the Dems had 59 votes for cloture for a bill repealing some tax breaks for the oil companies. Let's say Reid kept the bill on the floor after cloture failed for lack of that 60th vote.

The GOP could (a) cave, in which case forcing the filibuster would 'work' in the practical sense of producing a legislative victory. Or (b) they could talk all night and through the next day in support of tax breaks for Big Oil.

Either way, that's a big freakin' win for the Dems.

a) shows that they're willing to go to the mats, and now all they need is a Dem President. Next year, Hillary/Obama/Edwards can say, "our Congress passed bills repealing tax breaks for the oil companies, but Bush vetoed them. Rudy/Mitt/Huck/Fred/McCain would use their veto to keep those special deals for Big Oil. If you're for tax breaks like that, vote for him. If you're against them, vote for me."

b) turns the GOP into their own worst publicists, into a party that was willing to talk all day and all night in order to preserve tax breaks for Big Oil. When those Senate elections come up next year, the YouTubes of the filibuster, along with the record of the cloture votes, will be serious ammunition in the hands of the Dem challengers.

Most of all, it would show the people that the Dems are serious about fighting on their behalf. Right now, the quite accurate perception is that the Dems are timid and can be buffaloed by Bush and 41 GOP Senators. While the public doesn't like what the GOP is doing, it's hard for them to get behind an opposition that doesn't bother to oppose, that's been given the powers of the majority but doesn't bother to use them.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on December 14, 2007 at 5:39 AM | PERMALINK

It would bring Senate business to a halt, but the Republicans would be blamed for it. And they would be right there on camera, talking till they get hoarse, while Democratic consultants could be on cable talking up whatever bill the Republicans were obstructing that day.

It is a good idea, especially to use against the Republicans whose Senate seats are up for re-election. It would make great campaign fodder. "Wanna know why nothing has gotten done in the Senate? Watch this!" Cue to hoarse, filibustering Republican, followed by a shot of Bush wielding his veto pen.

It they are going to be obstructionist, dammit, make them pay the political price for it!!!!

Posted by: susan on December 14, 2007 at 6:57 AM | PERMALINK

Only problem with the Tax Big Oil scenario is that most reasonably intelligent people will realize it will cause an increase price at the pumps. Republicans point at the Defeatacrats and surprise, perfect counter move.

Most stalemates go to the party that has the support of the people. They are not always well informed on issues, but if they are behind it, the measure gets passed. If the measure is weak, has faults or if the information they get says no, it doesn't matter which way your side wants to vote (they want to get re-elected) and it fails.

Integrity and conviction are lacking on both sides. But, if they didn't act like politicians, who would Defeatacrats blame for not taking care of them like their mommies would.

Posted by: JD on December 14, 2007 at 7:27 AM | PERMALINK

I think the Democrats in the Senate have two major problems. 1) Reid isn't a great majority leader. He may even be below average. 2) The Democrats' "majority" consists of Joe Lieberman. If they put real pressure on Joe, he will walk--become a Republican. He doesn't want to do that, because he promised a lot of people in Connecticut that he wouldn't. But if Reid et al. really piss him off, he will.

Posted by: Alan Vanneman on December 14, 2007 at 7:53 AM | PERMALINK

> Is there anyone -- anyone at all -- who can
> explain to me in a simple, or at least
> easy-to-follow (since I'm not terribly bright),
> step-by-step way -- why it is that when the
> Republicans controlled the Senate -- by a very
> slim margin -- they could do whatever they wanted,
> and the Dem's couldn't even get the mic's to
> staty on, but now, when the Dem's hold the
> majority

1) Joe Lieberman is a Republican

2) Many nominally "Democratic" congressmen are actually Republicans (and/or they have greater sympathy with most Republican positions on key issues, which amounts to the same thing)

3) The Republicans own the traditional media

4) Pt. 3 doesn't really matter because the so-called "journalists" of the traditional media have internalized Republican talking points to the extent that they don't have to be ordered to paint a sympathetic picture of Republicans any more

5) The Democratic leadership has been capitulating for so long that they have internalized that behavior as normal.

I could go on, but that gives a basic picture I think. The key even for me is the standing ovation given Lieberman by the /Democratic/ Senators after he stabbed his own party in the back and they supported him in doing so.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on December 14, 2007 at 7:57 AM | PERMALINK

The problem isn't with the Democratic Senators, it's with US -- the ostensibly Democratic (progressive?) base. WE are the ones who wouldn't allow it to work.

For one thing, we are easily stampeded.

For another, we tend to get stuck on stoooopid, e.g., the way "comprehensive immigration reform" became a substitute for common sense. Leave aside all the substance of the debate and see the dynamic: somehow, a bill sponsored by Kennedy needed Kyl as a broker? Yet you will look long and hard before you find a traditional Democratic constituency that doesn't STILL! genuflect piously to an utterly failed political strategy.

And one last point: for a majority of Senators to be POLITICALLY successful in forcing the minority to try stopping Senate business, they have to lead a disciplined message.

Look at Kos -- or these threads.

Posted by: theAmericanist on December 14, 2007 at 8:23 AM | PERMALINK

Thankfully, the Dems never did anything like this when in the minority. They just rolled over for BushCo.

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on December 14, 2007 at 8:34 AM | PERMALINK

Please stop concluding posts with "stay tuned".

Posted by: Jonny Shabadoo on December 14, 2007 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

I'm sorry, but I must agree with Tom Mann. It's simply impractical. Given the present make-up of the Senate, there is no cure for whay ails it.

Therefore, I recommend that we instead do the practical thing, which is to take them all to the vet's, and have them put to sleep.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on December 14, 2007 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

Why don't the Democrats do what the Republican threatened to do, go nuclear. Abolish the filibuster.

Posted by: Stuart Shiffman on December 14, 2007 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

Therefore, I recommend that we instead do the practical thing, which is to take them all to the vet's, and have them put to sleep.

Too expensive--this country is already swimming in debt. Just have Mitt give them all a ride.

Posted by: shortstop, world's biggest dog lover, so step off on December 14, 2007 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

Shiffman's idea is worth thinking about. And it's not like it hasn't been done before.

The House originally allowed for unlimited debate, also, until a series of rules changes in the late 19th century eliminated various tools that the minority developed to prevent the majority from doing business. One was the vanishing quorum, in which members were present but refused to answer the roll when called. (The Founders had counted as present only those who actually voted, which meant it took far fewer to stop legislation from being considered than to actually defeat a bill.) Thomas Reed, the Speaker at the time, wrote "the Reed Rules" in 1890 to force action favored by a majority, and to give the Committee of the Whole the power to close debate on any bill or section of a bill, effectively ending the filibuster in the House.

The Senate kept a tradition of unlimited debate for another quarter century, but in the last 30 years or so it, since Abourzek did one over natural gas deregulation, the Senate has pretty thoroughly debased the filibuster.

It's odd how it is considered to be something heroic -- most likely because of Mr. Smith Comes to Washington. It was just like the House practice (used in debates over tariffs and such) until LaFollette used it to try to stop Wilson from arming merchant ships, which he accurately predicted would drag us into the First World War. That was when the Senate first limited debate by passing Rule XXII, that three fifths of Senators present and voting could for the first time limit debate two days after 16 submitted a motion to shut their colleagues up. That led to the classic filibusters of Huey Long and Strom Thurmond. And why anybody thinks a tactic most famously used to save Jim Crow is heroic is beyond me.

Still -- for all his shrieking sins, Thurmond's record filibuster was at least about something important: he was trying to preserve white supremacy in the South. You can't say that was a small issue -- we fought a Civil War over it, fercryingoutloud.

And LaFollete's filibuster, the one that made the Senate limit debate in the first place, was over the biggest war in history up to that time.

But the issues these days are simply not worth it -- and I think that's how to frame it: Ben Franklin would have known in a heartbeat that an irresponsible Senate minority shouldn't have a tool like this.

"A republic -- if you can keep it."

Posted by: theAmericanist on December 14, 2007 at 9:57 AM | PERMALINK

This misses the bigger picture.

The Democrats are playing a silly game of "one side must win, so if we lose, you win". The result is that when the Dems can't pass their own legislation they allow the president to get what he wants.

Why do they do this? Because they honestly don't care -- it's all politics to them. Democrats care as much about the war, the economy, your livelihood as the man on the moon.

It looks like the Democrats have no backbone because you are assuming they really care about things like the above -- they don't. They care about money and being re-elected (and so do the Republicans). As a result, the Democrats are winning because no matter how high the frustration is with the base, the base is solidly in the Dems camp. No Dem will be stupid enough to vote Republican this time out. As a result, the Dems are assured of their majorities.

So what happens after the election? It gets worse. The base moves on knowing there will be no Iran war, no stupid more tax cuts for the rich, etc. But the money men will still be hanging around.

The Democrats ARE winning, just not the legislative game (which is irrelevant to them) -- it's the nation that is losing, and who the hell cares about that?

Posted by: Dicksknee on December 14, 2007 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

"What am I missing here (please, someone explain)?"

What you are missing is that Harry Reid's primary worry as Majority leader seems to be what will happen if the universe collapses and the Democrats find themselves back in the minority sometime in the next 2-6 years. Reid envisions himself as a soon-to-be minority leader, and the next time around he's going to show everyone he can get that job right and filibuster away, but he can only try to do that if he lets the Republicans obstruct everything in sight now.

Sounds ridiculous, to be sure, but I've found it a solid rule of thumb that if people's actions can be explained very easily only by assuming ridiculous motivations then ridiculous motivations are a safe assumption.

Posted by: R Johnston on December 14, 2007 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

low-tech cyclist and others have this right, and Kevin, Mann and Ornstein are missing the point. The question is not: "Could the Democrats break a filibuster?" On that question, Ornstein is optimistic, Mann is not, and Drum is confused. But who cares? The important question is: How does a real Republican filibuster play politically?

Given that the Democrats get to pick their issue, and given the fact that there are so many good issues out there, it seems obvious that the Democrats have a golden opportunity to force the Republicans into big nasty fight on grounds of the Democrats' choosing.

Posted by: politicalfootball on December 14, 2007 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

Withholding unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of the bills is something that should always be done. There is no excuse for legislators to ever vote for a bill that they have not read.

Posted by: freelunch on December 14, 2007 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

Does anyone else find it interesting that it's someone at the GOP-hack-filled AEI who thinks it's worth a try to force the republicans' hand, and someone at the "nonpartisan" Brookings who thinks it's not?

Posted by: pau on December 14, 2007 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't the best way to find out about this stuff to try it? I mean, shouldn't the Dems be exhausting every avenue of resistance, instead of just exhausting our patience?

Posted by: Kenji on December 14, 2007 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

Is it me, or does Kevin Drum essentially know absolutely nothing about politics? He might know some things about policy, but when it comes to political gamesmanship he's clueless.

Essentially, nothing we care about is being done anyway right now. We just have an opportunity to make sure nothing they want to get done will get done either, and to make sure the media has to cover endless Republicans filibustering instead of reporting that congress simply 'fails' to do something.

Posted by: Soullite on December 14, 2007 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

The biggest problem is REID himself, because that guy can't lead and doesn't really even want too lead. I've seen Reid neverly in tears severaly times on C-Span because "Bush is so mean to him". It's all quite dismal, so that I'm hope Reid is NOT re-elected, as this seems to be the only way to remove bad leadership - the Tom Daschle, not worth voting for non-leader that he was.

Why can't Dems find someone that would work with Nancy better? AS I think she wants to fight but instead Reid always just wants to cow, capitulate, and whine about his situation.

So I guesss the question should be WHY do Dems want weak leadership? It's like they want to be bullied by Bush but pretend like they don't to voters. Someone needs to rein in Feinstein and Rockafellow because those to Bush lap dogs cause the greatest harm, so perhaps a better leader, like Dodd would be outspoken and driven, and certainly is something Reid will NEVER be.

Posted by: Me_again on December 14, 2007 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

R. Johnson has a GREAT point. Remember, during the threat of filibuster over Bush court nominees, how the GOP threatened to suspend or dismiss the rules of the Senate? Now, yes, Reid's authority is slimmer, given the Lieberman situation.

Frankly, I wonder if Senate Dems would be better, even now (in hindsight, they might have been better from the start, except getting the min wage increase) for undoing the caucus with Lieberman. Force him to caucus with the GOP.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on December 14, 2007 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

> So I guesss the question should be WHY
> do Dems want weak leadership? It's like
> they want to be bullied by Bush but
> pretend like they don't to voters.

Because regardless of where a person starts out on the spectrum of belief in humanity, by the time he has done what it takes to be a long-serving senior politician he has come to believe in authoritarianism and the rule of princes?

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on December 14, 2007 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, the Rebups can block legislation or the pres can veto it. But the Dems need to hold them to it. Veto troop funds, then do without the funds

There need to be consequences to vetos and blocks. That is no SCHIP, no troop funds until the Repubs accept the legislation.

Posted by: George on December 14, 2007 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

From Greenwald regarding the FISA bill:

Reid is bring the Senate Intelligence Committee version engineered by Jay Rockefeller and Dick Cheney which gives the administration most of what it wants - the telecom amnesty and fewer surveillance oversight protections.

Harry Reid is apparently bringing the bill to the floor (a) in precisely the way designed to help the administration's goal of ensuring there is telecom amnesty and fewer surveillance oversight protections and (b) contrary to the way his office has been assuring everyone concerned that it would be done.

And this:

...Reid is extremely vulnerable in Nevada and if he follows through with his stated plans, those vulnerabilities ought to be exploited to the fullest, whether it be with anti-Reid ads in Nevada

We can't get rid of Reid fast enough, and I don't care if a Repug picks up Reid's seat, can't be worse than Reid is already doing.

We need better Dems. This is why MoveOn.org is an great organization, because it's time to take back control of congress, since Reid, Feinstein, and Rockafelle are serving ONLY themself, not their voters, not the people of this nation. It's time to put a stop to that. These guys could have stop Bush. Greenwalds column shows how Kevin Drum's just wants to give them an cheap excuse NOT for not standing up, but those senators will NEVER take a stand for what is right, because they don't want to stand up.

Posted by: Me_again on December 14, 2007 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

Mann and Ornstein don't appear to disagree that much. Ornstein is arguing that forcing actual filibusters could work, given conditions that I think he and Mann both agree don't exist now.

Senators generally are, as Ornstein says, soft. More precisely, they are basically the same people they were when they, or most of them, were Congressmen -- they want short work weeks in Washington so they can spend more time campaigning in their states, and time away from the floor while in Washington so they can have evenings free for campaign fundraising. Reid's own caucus would revolt if he told them he was going to try five-day, full-session weeks. He ought to risk that revolt, as I'll explain in a moment, but I understand what he's afraid of.

Another thing to remember about the Senate is that a large portion of its membership is very old. It is older as a whole than it has been in many years, and this poses an obstacle to any Majority Leader wanting to impose a demanding legislative schedule on the body. Incidentally, it burdens the Democrats in other ways as well right now -- there is no way Harry Reid should be the party's primary Senate spokesman on spending bills, for example, but the two senior Democrats on the Appropriatons Committee are both well into their 80s.

Finally, the Democrats are three votes short as long as all the Presidential candidates are shuttling back and forth between Iowa and New Hampshire. That's a numbers problem in the Senate, but it's also a message problem. The fact is that national media don't cover Congress as long as the Presidential campaign is hot. Senate Republicans could light a bonfire in the chamber and barely get a mention on the nightly news, and the big-picture conceptual rhetoric out on the campaign trail is very hard to synchronize with what the Senate leadership is trying to do with legislation in Washington.

Given that Reid has the deck stacked against him, he was a poor choice for minority leader. He's not a deal maker, and is too worried about his own position within his caucus to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Republicans unity in defense of the very unpopular President Bush. As Mann says, forcing real filibusters probably wouldn't help force passage of much actual legislation. What it would do is enable Democrats to associate every Senate Republican up for reelection next year with Bush. The issues and arguments are secondary; the opportunity lies in Democrats' ability to say that individual Senate Republicans vote the way they do out of personal loyalty to the least popular politician in the country, and to say it every time a new bill comes up.

If it were up to me, we wouldn't legislate in this way. But Senate Majority Leaders have to adjust to circumstances. You can complain about the other party's obstructionism or work out a way to make the other party pay for it. Harry Reid does more of the first than the second.

Posted by: Zathras on December 14, 2007 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

Re: one of the AEI analysts' sugggestion that Reid call for full five-day work weeks - how many blue-state west-of-the-Mississppi Dems would not be able to fly home on weekends? And do any of those need to campaign? A red-blue map with flight times from DC would be nice. In any case, surely another of Reid's considerations.

Posted by: MC on December 14, 2007 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK
Only problem with the Tax Big Oil scenario is that most reasonably intelligent people will realize it will cause an increase price at the pumps. Republicans point at the Defeatacrats and surprise, perfect counter move.

Eh? You must have forgotted that they're already inoculated against that. Or have you forgotten the "Record Profits!!!111!!" that the major oil companies have been enjoying over the last couple years? Gas prices that have stayed near their peaks even though oil prices had retreated weeks earlier?
Just so it's clear to you - Big Oil has already cast themselves as "willing to gouge the little people" and the Republicans have cast themselves as "happy to help them do so", so all the Democratic majority has to do is cast themselves as "happy to don the rubber gloves and grab some vaseline".
Especially with Greenspam(sic) talking up the growing likelihood of a recession ...

Posted by: kenga on December 14, 2007 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

Disagreement? Not really. Both agree that Reid can force an old-style talk-til-you-drop filibuster. Complicated? Not really. The only consideration is whether it would be effective. Do the dems have the votes on any particular issue to end debate over repub objections? Will Bush just veto any legislation that gets out anyhow?

Legally, it can clearly be done. Politically, it is really very simple to determine whether it should be done: If the legislation is unpopular, then a filibuster/veto would make repubs look like heroes--don't do it. If the legislation is popular, then a repub filibuster/veto makes the dems look like heroes--do it. If the legislation is borderline popular/unpopular or hard to understand (like the budget deals), then a filibuster/veto might serve only to make the dems look weak--you get no hero points if nobody cares.

There. Not so hard after all.

Posted by: cramer on December 14, 2007 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

> Another thing to remember about the Senate is
> that a large portion of its membership is very
> old. It is older as a whole than it has been in
> many years, and this poses an obstacle to any
> Majority Leader wanting to impose a demanding
> legislative schedule on the body. Incidentally,
> it burdens the Democrats in other ways as well
> right now -

These might be contributing factors, but when a group of experienced and nominally intelligent people act consistently for 10-15 years you have to start to think that they act that way because they WANT to act that way. As I said above, they are people in positions of great perks and at least theoretical power and they have come to believe in the authoritarian rule of princes regardless of what their party label says.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on December 14, 2007 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

"... now, when the Dem's hold the majority -- again, by a very slim margin -- the Rethugs can still do whatever they want, and the Dem's can't do a thing about it?
There has got to be some explanation, and I'd be very happy to give anyone however long it takes to get it to make some degree of sense...
Posted by: smartalek on December 14, 2007

------------

It takes more people to pass legislation than it does to stop it.

Posted by: MarkH on December 14, 2007 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

When will the Dems find their inner Willie Stark?

They're too busy courting their inner Willy Loman.
Posted by: Disputo on December 14, 2007 at 2:15 AM | PERMALINK

------------

You guys are hilarious. But, I have to admit sometimes they act more like

Wile E. Coyote

than they should.

What we need is better leadership and a bit more of a Dem majority (especially the presidency) to get things done.

Posted by: MarkH on December 14, 2007 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

There's a political game, which is not theatre, going on, and which should get more attention and analysis from the blogosphere: that's the gamesmanship around the still continuing trickle of appropriations bills.

The Democrats appear to be held hostage to their own sense of responsibility for keeping the government functioning, by Bush's apparent willingness "to rule or ruin".

Posted by: Bruce Wilder on December 14, 2007 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

So, the self-proclaimed world's greatest deliberative body has rules so arcane, ambiguous and complex that no one understands them? No wonder our democracy works so well.

Posted by: jrw on December 14, 2007 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

Cranky Observer, R Johnston, et al, thank you. I don't know whether any of this makes it any easier to take, though.
And it does support my idée fixe -- or obsession, if you prefer -- which is that we need our own mass media outlet. Between the [alleged] liberals in Hollywood and the few really-rich progressives, there ought to be enough capital and talent to create a left-leaning (or at least an honest, which itself would be sufficient -- and miraculous) cable network. And given the market niche, it should also be very, very profitable. That's something else I really don't get. Where's our Rupert Murdoch?

Posted by: smartalek on December 14, 2007 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

Withholding unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of the bills is something that should always be done. There is no excuse for legislators to ever vote for a bill that they have not read.

Posted by: freelunch on December 14, 2007 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

You are either trying to be funny or smoking crack. Withholding UC to dispense with the reading of bills and amendments is a filibuster TACTIC, not response to the filibuster.

The rules of the Senate are not at all complex. I have some small involvement with them in my work, and here are the essentials:

There are virtually no limits on debate in Senate Rules. (There are two technical limits, the "two-speech rule," and the "Pastore Rule," but neither really stop Senators from talking.)

There is also no debate ending motion in the Senate, such as they have in the House with the previous question motion. In addition, there are virutually no direct limits on amendments in the Senate, and in only four instances do these amendments even have to be germane -- i.e. on the same subject as the bill being amended.

Unless the matter in question is being governed by a rulemaking statute such as the Budget Act, the Senate votes on a matter when no other Senators want to debate it. This coupled with the freedom of amendment, means one or a small number can filibuster a measure or matter.

Because these standing rules are so inefficient and protect individual Senator's right to debate and amend, the chamber does almost all of its work through negotiation -- trying to get unanimous consent to structure debate or amendment, among other things.

If someone objects to a UC request to limit debate, pass a bill, or take some other action outside the normal proceudres described above, the only way to stymie them and move ahead is to vote to limit debate by invoking cloture under Senate Rule XXII. This either takes 60 votes or 67 depending on the business in question. Even if you do invoke cloture either on getting the bill before the chamber (called a motion to proceed) or the measure itself once it is before the Senate, invoking cloture can take 2 days and 30 hours.

Thus, all of the mechanisms of the Senate give tremendous power to the minorty, power which is magnified when the President is of the same power as the Senate minority.

Filibusters are no longer carried on by making the opponents actually hold the floor because as I have mentioned in a couple threads, they rarely work, and not only that, they destroy your own troops. Filibusterers have to keep one person talking. Opponents have to keep 50 (to constitute a quorum) there the whole time or the Senate will have to adjourn, giving the filibusterer what they desire. It's not an accident that they don't do them anymore.

Posted by: Pat on December 14, 2007 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

Apparently folks have forgotten that we aren't talking about the wonderful fantasy world of Civics 101. The idea that debate will lead to consensus has become a joke. The Republicans have learned that Reid and company will fold like a lawn chair in the slightest wind, and until Dem leadership shows that they will stand up for themselves this will continue. Period. Talk of a majority is a joke unless you are willing to show that you are willing to use it. That is where forcing a real filibuster comes in.

Force the Republicans to shut it down for real. Take a stand on something, hell and this point anything of substance will do. This time of year is the perfect time to do it, with the rash of end of the year necessary legislation coming up. Pick a piece of legislation (FISA reform would be perfect)and make it clear that this is the next bill to be voted on. And then make it equally clear that until it is voted on, no other bills will be brought up. AND STICK TO IT! Thats the key. Throw the elbow! Drop the gloves! Enough with this "stop or I'll shout stop again" nonsense. SHOW SOME FUCKING BALLS.

Stand up for yourself or just admit you are a coward and a wimp and that the bullies can just continue.

/end rant.

Posted by: clyde on December 14, 2007 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

See, Clyde, that's the problem: take your example of FISA. Leave aside the mechanics, assume Reid could sustain a filibuster.

WE couldn't -- the Democratic base, and the country as a whole.

First, the issue isn't so clear. Bush could credibly claim that he's simply trying to protect the country, to spy on bad guys. You and I and most progressives, hell, everybody on the left could agree UNANIMOUSLY -- and the fact is, we'd be barely 40% of the electorate, at best. (And we wouldn't get unanimity on the left, don't kid yourself.)

Second, to do it, Reid would have to close down the government. No passports. No national parks.

How'd that work for Gingrich?

Third, Republicans wouldn't cop to an 'all or nothing' position. They'd simply say, gee, we don't want to RUSH into anything. We should keep arguing about this -- I mean, do we REALLY know that (this, that or the other thing) that folks like the ACLU object to would NOT cripple our ability to prevent the next 9-11? Isn't that something we want to argue about until we ARE all sure?

The confrontation you describe, the good guys lose.

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