Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A crack in Republican party discipline?

The story of the job-creation bill that just passed its first major hurdle in the Senate may offer some clues to the dynamics of upcoming political struggles in the US Congress. Or it may not, but the possible implications may at least be worth some speculation.

In another welcome sign that the Senate Democrats have decided to stop being played for patsies, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scrapped a "bipartisan" absurdity being negotiated by the ever-accommodating Max Baucus--a characteristically tawdry hodgepodge loaded down with assorted bits of pork and corporate welfare that, in the end, most Republicans still would have voted against anyway, while taking credit for any money spent in their own state--and introduced a stripped-down, focused $15 billion job-creation bill. Essentially, he put it on the table and dared the Republicans to vote against it.
It had been uncertain earlier in the day whether any Republicans would help Democrats reach 60 votes and overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster. With Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) out of the Senate after being diagnosed with stomach cancer, Democrats needed at least two Republican votes to overcome a GOP filibuster threat.

"Work with us on this," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said moments before the vote. "Show us you're serious about legislating."

Reid also warned Republicans: Fail to support this bill, and the minority would "confirm their reputation as the 'Party of No.'"
In Monday's vote, the Republicans cracked:
Five Republicans joined Democrats in a key cloture vote moments ago, allowing debate on a jobs package to move forward. After overcoming this hurdle, debate on the bill can begin.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) broke with his party and voted with the Democrats. So did Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kit Bond (R-MO) and George Voinovich (R-OH).

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) was the only Democrat to break with his party.

The final vote tally was 62-30.
What's most interesting about this particular bill isn't its substance. Given the scale of the economic problems facing the country, this initiative was so small-scale it could be seen as at most a first step, or even as primarily a symbolic gesture. One can also make intellectually respectable arguments about whether or not payroll-tax breaks for firms that hire new employees, a central feature of the bill, are an especially effective incentive.

But in the present context all that is actually of secondary importance. The more significant fact is that, in this case, the Republicans were unable to maintain what has so far been a remarkably effective strategy of all-out monolithic obstructionism--in which they have filibustered even measures they otherwise support for the sake of clogging and sabotaging the legislative process.

I think we can assume that the Republican Senators who broke ranks on this vote did so with the tacit acquiescence of the Republican leadership, which is illuminating in itself. They were willing to force a cloture vote, which they now do routinely for anything the Democrats propose, but they weren't quite willing to force every Republican Senator to vote to kill a job-creation bill. Nevertheless, it's still intriguing to consider which Republican Senators broke ranks, and where they come from.

In a way, Kit Bond of Missouri almost doesn't count, since all accounts I have read make it clear that he voted for cloture only after it became apparent that it would pass anyway. That leaves four Republican Senators who voted in favor, and I suspect it's not accidental that three of those four come from New England. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, all the Republican Senators from New England states except New Hampshire's Judd Gregg (who, perhaps coincidentally, has announced that he's not running for re-election) voted for cloture. And those included, very conspicuously, the new Republican Senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown. My guess is that Brown is saving up his obstructionist votes for the health care reform bill. But he has probably calculated, whatever his Tea Party fans may hope, that a party-line "Party of No" Republican can't survive in Massachusetts.

Was this vote just an isolated blip, after which the Congressional Republicans will be able to return to monolithic obstructionism on other issues? Or was this a significant straw in the wind? We'll see.

--Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE 2/24/2010: Here's a follow-up that helps illuminate how the Congressional Republicans' strategy of routine and pervasive obstructionism works in practice:
On Monday, the Senate voted for cloture on the Democratic jobs bill, 62-30. Today, they passed the bill itself in a vote of 70-28.

That means eight senators who voted against cloture (or were absent, which in a cloture vote is the same as a no vote) vote for the bill itself. All of them are Republicans.

The switchers who voted no on cloture but yes today:

Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
James Inhofe (R-OK)
George LeMieux (R-FL)
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
Roger Wicker (R-MS)

And those who were absent Monday but voted yes today:

Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Richard Burr (R-NC)
This is not unusual. The current political reality is that Republican Senators routinely vote to filibuster bills that they then vote to pass once the Democrats have managed to overcome the filibuster. (Meanwhile, of course, the whole process has been delayed.) For further explanation, I refer readers to my earlier post on Why "bipartisanship" won't work - Facing the underlying reality, which includes this bit from an analyst quoted by James Fallows:
A closely related development fascinates and infuriates me, partly re the GOP and partly re the press. In the Senate, the GOP votes against cloture. But when the Dems finally manage to get the 60 votes, lots of GOP senators typically vote for the bill on final passage. "What's up with THAT?" I've asked several times. In the past, if you opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor. That was the only reason to oppose it getting to the floor - because you opposed it! The answer, I've been told several times (by Democratic staffers, who don't seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot of Republicans don't want to be on record as voting against a bill they believe the public or their constituents favor. Huh? Trying to kill it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on final passage is not?
And Senate Republicans even filibuster bills that they genuinely support, and which it should be political poison to obstruct, like the defense appropriations bill in December 2009. So the real question is, why do they get away with all this?
Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which we can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the shortcomings of the Senate Democrats.