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100 Versus America

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If deep-sixing the filibuster is off the table, the next best alternative would be for the majority to force those who threaten a filibuster to actually, you know, filibuster. To make them hold the Senate floor, talking until they drop. To break out the cots, just like in the old days, creating a scene straight out of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Imagine the effect on Lieberman or Ben Nelson if Harry Reid were to call their bluff on health care.

But although people close to Reid have occasionally made noises about taking this tack, no one seriously expects it to happen. And that points to another problem with the current Senate: the weakness of the leader. Around Washington, the perception of Reid is almost uniformly that he’s a pale shadow even of recent former occupants of his post, such as Tom Daschle and George Mitchell—let alone the giants of yore, from Mike Mansfield to LBJ.

Whatever Reid’s merits and demerits, what’s indisputable is that his control over his caucus is less commanding than that exerted by Nancy Pelosi over hers in the House; or, more to the point, than that of almost any Republican Senate majority leader of recent vintage over theirs. Indeed, maybe the most persuasive counterclaim to the view that the supermajority is the problem in the Senate is that the GOP has rarely been as troubled by it as Democrats are now. In the age of George W. Bush, for example, Republican discipline was so staunch, and the party’s movements so firmly in lockstep, that the filibuster rarely posed the kind of problem that Obama and his party have encountered all this past year. The reason is that the Democratic Party is a much more heterodox beast than the GOP. There are obvious upsides to this diversity, especially in national elections. But the consequence is that Obama has a much trickier hand to play in Congress than Bush did.

The supermajority requirement entailed by the filibuster, the weakness of Reid, the ideological diversity of the caucus: All would have conspired against any new Democratic president, even one with a much less urgent or sweeping program than Obama. The trouble is that, in all likelihood, the picture in the Senate is destined to grow only dimmer for Obama. Among the savviest Democratic senators I’ve spoken to of late, the consistent refrain is that the party is staring down the barrel of a three- to five-seat loss in the midterm elections next year. And, if that comes to pass, it will have profound implications for what Obama can achieve in the second half of his first term. “Think about how hard it’s been for them with 60 seats,” says a centrist senator. “Now think about what it’s going to be like with just 55 or 56. Not pretty.”

Which brings us back to health care. Throughout the epic push to pass reform, Obama has never once uttered a peep of complaint about the procedural lunacies of the Senate. Yglesias speculates that as an ex-senator, he may have “personally bought into the bizarre self-justifying myths that circulate” in the upper chamber. But that is wrong; Obama was never much enamored of the place, even when he was there.

More accurate, I suspect, is that Obama’s aversion to criticizing the Senate’s bizarro byways is part and parcel of the overarching strategy of congressional deference that has defined his first year. One of the great sacrifices of that approach has been the loss of the outsider status he brought with him to the White House. If health care passes, Obama might well judge that sacrifice to have been worth it. If it fails, however, he may rue the decision to make common cause with the inmates of an asylum that he fled at the earliest opportunity.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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