Bush Didn't Get All He Wanted with 55 GOP Sens.

John Aravosis writes:

I've heard people say that it's not fair to criticize the Democrats for botching health care reform because the Democrats never truly had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Sure, they have 60 votes in principle, the argument goes, but with Lieberman, Nelson, Landrieu, and Bayh counted as four of those votes, it's not really a solid 60.

Perhaps. But then how was George Bush so effective in passing legislation during his presidency when he never had more than 55 Republicans in the Senate? In fact, during Bush's most effective years, from 2001 to 2005, the GOP had a grand total of 50, and then 51, Senators. The slimmest margin possible.

The general thrust of what John writes is right -- that George W. Bush was able to get a great deal done with far slimmer Senate majorities than the one enjoyed by Barack Obama today. Leadership, John explains, is what it comes down to: President Bush spoiled for the fights that the current White House seems to be avoiding.

But while John is broadly right, it's important to note that George W. Bush wasn't able to achieve everything he wanted with 55 Senators. Indeed, he was unable to even get off the ground the signature domestic policy of his Presidency: Social Security privatization.

This point is important. Yes, George W. Bush was able to get through the Senate massive tax cuts, as well as foreign policy initiatives and nominations. Yet these are in a way easier through our political system as, in the case of the two latter efforts, the balance of power in areas of nominations and foreign policy rests squarely in favor of the executive, and, in the case of the former, tax cuts rightly or wrongly are easier to get through the Congress than other pieces of legislation.

George W. Bush was able to get through the Senate at least two significant pieces of domestic legislation: No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. The scope of these two bills, however, pales in comparison wit the healthcare initiative currently making it through the Congress. These two bills simply do not compare to the effort to attain near-universal healthcare coverage. And as noted above, the one legislative effort of a comparable scale advanced by George W. Bush -- the partial privatization of Social Security -- didn't even manage to get off the ground, let alone through committee and the entire Senate.

Legislating isn't easy -- particularly not when the legislation in question would so fundamentally reshape the country. So at least from this vantage, it's remarkable that healthcare reform, the largest domestic policy initiative in at least four decades and perhaps even in seven, is so close to becoming law regardless of the fact that there are 60 Democrats in the Senate.

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When 74% isn't a Landslide: Do Enzi, Grassley, and Hatch oppose civil rights?

Adapted from Blue Moose Democrat.

Key Republican Senators Charles Grassley, Mike Enzi, and Orrin Hatch have all said that the health care bill needs to have between 75 and 80 Senate votes. Grassley has even gone so far as to make it clear that no matter how much he likes the final bill, he won't bother thinking for himself or for his constituents; he'll only vote for it if a large number of his Senate Republican colleagues do, as well.

75 votes is an absurd threshold. When a president wins election with 60% of the vote, we call it a landslide, and yet when "just" 60% of our elected representatives vote for a bill, we're supposed to consider it partisan? It gets even more absurd when one considers that the original Senators, some of our founding fathers, set up a system where a bare majority rules. The filibuster has since increased that to 60%.

Yet as horrible as they said it was back when they were threatening the "nuclear option," the filibuster just isn't enough for these three Republicans anymore. I think a bill with 75 votes would be a wonderful thing for political unity in this country, but it's just not going to happen. Most Senate Republicans, from Jim DeMint to Jon Kyl, have made it clear that they won't support any sort of reform. Should we give up because our majority is merely a big one rather than a huge one? Of course not! That wasn't the threshold when Republicans were in charge, and it is not the threshold now.

That fact got me thinking: are these three Senators willing to renege on their support for any current laws that received less than 75 votes? Or even more drastically, would they say such laws are invalid? As Howard Dean said on Maddow last night, "I think we probably should have had 80 votes to go to war in Iraq, too." Here, then, is a list of five laws that passed with less than 75% Congressional support:

  • The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote passed the Senate 56-25, which today would be the equivalent of 69 Senators, six less than Grassley wants. Does that mean he thinks women shouldn't vote? Is he willing to say so about our efforts to promote democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  • The 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition passed on a vote of 63-21. That means just 71.4% of Senators supported it. Would Mike Enzi like to see prohibition reinstated?
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate on a vote of 73-27, two shy of the new benchmark. Does this mean Orrin Hatch wants to repeal civil rights?
  • The Iraq War, ie, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, did receive 77 votes in the Senate. In the House, however, it only received 297 votes, or 68.3% support, 6.7% less than Republican negotiators now demand. Does this mean they are willing to start opposing the war?
  • Medicare Part D, ie, 2003's Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, passed the Senate 54-44. Hatch, Enzi, and Grassley all voted aye - are they willing to admit they were wrong and should have held out for 21-26 more votes?

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GOP Still Not Telling Truth on Judicial Filibusters

I am always surprised (though perhaps I shouldn't be) at the establishment media's willingness to allow the Republicans to cast themselves as martyrs in the larger judicial confirmation battles, pinning the blame for any and all acrimony in the process on the Democrats. In The New York Times today there is yet another story along these lines, the basic premise of which is that conservatives are itching for a fight over Sonia Sotomayor because the Democrats showed an improper lack of reverence for Robert Bork, among others.

While The Times does manage to slip in one paragraph -- the fifteenth! -- to provide context for the story by way of reminding readers that the GOP shut down the judicial nomination process during the final six years of the administration of Bill Clinton, effectively blocking most of the President's choices for the bench, the general thrust of the piece appears to be that it's all the Democrats' fault.

But I have said it before and I'll say it again: The Republicans began this fight with the unprecedented filibuster of Abe Fortas, the sitting Associate Justice of the Supreme Court nominated by Lyndon Johnson to serve as the Chief Justice of the panel. This isn't to say that the Democrats' hands are clean in the process, because both sides have played hardball on confirmations in recent decades. Yet to suggest, as Republicans do and The Times appears willing to pass on without much context, that it's all the Democrats' fault is simply preposterous, and editors should know better than to pass on this drivel.

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Grassley on filibusters: They did it first

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa is in line to become the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee beginning in 2011, so he will have a major role in shaping Republican strategy on President Obama's judicial appointments.

Bleeding Heartland/Daily Kos user Elise and her husband clonecone have been tracking Grassley's hypocrisy on filibusters lately. He was among many Senate Republicans who claimed in 2005 that it was unconstitutional to filibuster presidential appointments. However, last week he was among 17 Republicans who voted against cloture on Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill. He has also said he will try to block Dawn Johnsen's nomination to head the president's Office of Legal Counsel.

When Grassley appeared on a local Mediacom show a few days ago, clonecone called in to question him on his filibuster flip-flop. Elise posted the video of the senator's answer with a rough transcript at Bleeding Heartland. The shorter version is that Johnsen's views are "extreme," and as for judicial filibusters, Democrats did it first.

Over at Iowa Independent, Jason Hancock followed up on Elise's diary. Grassley's office gave Iowa Independent this statement:

"Prior to 2001-2002 there were little to no filibusters on judges.  At that time, the Democrats set a 60-vote precedent that I did not agree with.  I still don't like filibustering judicial nominees, but a new and higher standard was set and we are now abiding by that standard."

I expect to hear "they did it first" as an excuse from my six-year-old, not from a U.S. senator seeking a sixth term in 2010.

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What Democrats should learn from this year's Congressional voting patterns

Thanks to Iowa blogger John Deeth, I learned that Iowa's own Senator Tom Harkin

voted against George Bush's declared position more than any other senator in 2008, according to Congressional Quarterly vote scores. Harkin opposed Bush's position 75 percent of the time.

More important, Congressional Quarterly has released its annual rankings of members' votes. Richard Rubin's write-up is here, and there's a link on that page to the pdf file you can use to find how often each member of Congress voted with Bush and voted with his or her own party.

Rubin gives the main conclusions:

Bush's side prevailed on just 47.8 percent of roll call votes in 2008 where he took a clear position. That is the eighth-lowest score in the 56-year history of the survey, although it was higher than Bush's 38.3 percent success rate in 2007. Congress forced him to accept a farm bill and Medicare doctor-payment changes he didn't want, and lawmakers challenged him repeatedly on issues from tobacco regulation to infrastructure spending.

Moderate Republicans fled from the president as the election neared, and the average House Republican supported Bush just 64 percent of the time. That's down 8 percentage points from a year ago and the lowest for a president's party since 1990, midway through Bush's father's term in the White House. His average support score of 70 percent among GOP senators was also the lowest for a president's party since 1990.

As in 2007, Democrats voted with Bush far less often than they had when the Republicans were in charge and could set the agenda. House Democrats voted with Bush just 16 percent of the time on average -- above their 2007 support score of 7 percent but still the second lowest for any president. Democratic senators joined Bush on 34 percent of roll call votes, down from their average support score of 37 percent a year ago. [...]

At the same time, despite his political weakness, Democratic control of Congress and frequent defeats, Bush got his way on some of the biggest issues of the year.

Playing offense, the administration secured more money for his effort to fight AIDS globally and cemented a nuclear-cooperation deal with India. But Bush scored most often with blocking tactics, using threatened vetoes and the Senate filibuster to avoid significant changes to his Iraq policies, major restrictions on intelligence- gathering tactics, and removal of tax breaks for oil and gas companies. He was a resilient pinata, losing plenty of votes along the way but remaining the biggest obstacle to the Democrats' ability to turn their campaign agenda into law.

I see two lessons for Democrats here. First, Barack Obama should understand that driving a very hard bargain with Congress often pays off. You don't have to back down at the first sign of serious opposition. If even an extremely unpopular president was able to do reasonably well with a Congress controlled by the other party, a new president who is quite popular like Obama should be able to get most of what he wants from a Congress controlled by his own party.

If any of Obama's proposals fail the first year, he should consider trying again later without watering them down. Bush wasn't able to get everything he wanted out of the Republican-controlled Congress during his first year or two, but he kept at it and was able to get much of his agenda through eventually. Many tax cuts not included in the 2001 package got through in later years. He didn't get the energy bill he wanted until 2005.

The second lesson is for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It's long past time to start making the Republicans pay a price for using the filibuster. Otherwise they will continue to use it routinely to block Obama's agenda.

Nate Silver recently looked at how Republicans have used the filibuster since Democrats gained the majority in Congress. He concluded that Reid "has been exceptionally ineffective":

There are basically two mechanisms that a majority leader can employ to limit filibusters: firstly, he can threaten to block votes on certain of the opposition party's legislation (or alternatively, present carrots to them for allowing a vote to proceed), and secondly, he can publicly shame them. Reid managed to do neither, and the Senate Republicans did fairly well for themselves considering that they were in a minority and were burdened by a President with negative political capital.

Time to play hardball in the Senate, not only with Republicans but also with Evan Bayh and his merry band of Democratic "Blue Dogs" if they collude with Republicans to obstruct Obama's agenda.

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