Congress–Hey, Remember Them?

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Over at the New Republic, Norm Ornstein, Eve Fairbanks and Michelle Cottle have a lively debate going on: “So Why Have the Democrats Struggled?” One of the issues they are dealing with, near and dear to Swampland and its commenters, is the filibuster–and, specifically, why Harry Reid doesn’t just call the Republicans’ bluff.

Ornstein once again makes the argument that Reid should do it:

The only way to deal with serial filibusterers is to turn the tables on them, call their bluff, and bring the Senate to a screeching halt. A real old-fashioned filibuster on, say, the energy bill–round-the-clock, cots in the halls, for a couple of weeks, over the issue of Republicans blocking advancement of alternative fuels so that they could protect a big tax break for oil companies that even President Bush had said was undeserved–would have dramatized the problem. Risky? Yes. But what have they got to lose?

Cottle says no:

I’ve been making your basic shut-the-place-down argument to Senate Dems, who counter that this is the sort of thing they tried to do–unsuccessfully–early on (à la the all-nighter-pajama-party-with-cots photo op). With that approach and this group of Republicans, they say, you get nothing: not ethics reform, not minimum wage increase, not AMT reform, not any shot at an energy bill. Then you really do get branded a do-nothing Congress, and the voters are even more miffed.

Yeah, I know, some people figure Congress’s approval ratings couldn’t sink any lower. But I actually think the situation could be much grimmer for Dems specifically. People always kinda hate Congress–especially when something big is going on like, say, an ill-advised war. And at this point, polls show that the Dems are more highly regarded than Republicans. (House leadership is peddling some new Hart poll showing that voters favor Dems by more than 20 points when asked which party will bring needed change to the country.)

Also, particularly with the spending bills, don’t both of you suspect the Dems have an all-too-vivid memory of just how popular Newt wound up in the wake of his government shutdown? Does that make congressional Dems weenies? Maybe. But it doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

Back to you, Norm:

Remember that Bill Frist did the same thing in 2005 when he proposed the “nuclear option” to blow up Senate rules and traditions, and was stung when he was reminded that he and his colleagues had never once tried to handle a filibuster in the traditional way. So he did the 24-hour symbolic thing. That is like saying “I tried a hunger strike by fasting on Yom Kippur (and of course gorged myself after sunset).” A real filibuster would be a whole different experience. Would it be like Newt’s shutdown of the whole government? Not at all. It would not shut down vital programs like Social Security or the national parks. If handled adroitly (admittedly, a tough bar for the Senate Democrats to hurdle), it would not look like a temperamental outburst. Instead it would change the grounds of debate–a reasonable request to let the majority have its way on things that are clearly reasonable and important and not matters of great principle for a minority to hold onto. Otherwise, the next year is going to look very much like the first year of the 110th Congress.


Dems want to be seen as tough, but they also need to appear reasonable and statesmanlike. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to see them embracing a “What the heck! Anything has got to be better than this!” approach. Going back to Norm’s analogy, sometimes even the best-organized hunger strike just plain won’t work.

I’m still with Norm on this one, Michelle.

The whole TNR series makes interesting reading, especially in light of the next big test of wills over an economic stimulus package. The presidential candidates may be talking about it, but it will fall to President Bush and Congress to actually get one done in time. That is, if it’s not already too late.