Senate Republican protest is counterproductive

The Senate Republican response to the Senate rules change is that they will all join together to slow everything down to a crawl, to punish Democrats for the reforms. New York Times:

The Senate slowly began working its way through a backlog of presidential nominees on Tuesday now that Republicans are virtually powerless to block confirmations, approving a once-stalled judge to a powerful appeals court and a new director for the agency that oversees federal home lending.

But Republicans, still seething over a power play last month by Democrats to curtail the filibuster significantly, have settled on a strategy for retribution: make the confirmation process as time-consuming and procedurally painful as possible for Democrats.

“There’s a price that has to be paid when people abuse the rules,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah. “And let’s face it. These guys have completely obliterated the rules.”

Setting aside the irony of Senate Republicans saying the rules are being abused — and setting aside my view that it’s probably barely possible at this point to make it go any slower than it was — let’s accept the premise for the sake of debate. My question: do they really think this is going to be a persuasive argument to American voters, to convince them that the rules change was the wrong move?

U.S. voters, broadly speaking, love bold, fast action from government if it’s going to act at all. Senate Democrats saw a logjam, got fed up with it, and finally broke it. Republicans think forming a new one will win them voters. How? It’s just going to make Senate Democrats and voters even more likely to support changing even more of the Senate’s rules.

Slowing down operations to punish the majority for trying to speed up operations is only going to harden the majority’s determination to expand efforts to speed things up. Many Senate Dems are still skeptical of further changes and held out as long as possible against this limited reform. I’m sure a lot of them wouldn’t go along with more changes if they believed it had resolved the problem.

Being conciliatory and cooperative, instead of belligerent, makes way more sense as a long-term strategy to persuade people to stop taking options away from you. If you think everyone has characterized you incorrectly, you don’t go trying to prove them right by doing the thing they accuse you of, as a means of responding. That’s just poor strategy.

On the upside, Democrats aren’t taking the new abuses of the rules lying down:

“It’s retaliatory,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa. “It’s revenge,” he added, noting that Democrats had a way of making things unpleasant themselves: by forcing Republicans to be physically present on the Senate floor while they draw things out.

“They’re going to have to keep speaking for four hours or eight hours at a time,” Mr. Harkin said. “And I don’t think they’ll have the stomach to do that on Fridays and Saturdays.”

The Fiscal Cliff Deal (and What It Means for Boehner)

So the House of Representatives passed the New Year’s Fiscal Cliff Deal that the Senate passed in the middle of the night by a large margin, a few weeks after Speaker John Boehner’s unilateral “Plan B” proposal failed abysmally because neither the House Democrats nor his own Republican Majority were interested. So instead of the conservative Republicans getting a pretty good deal, they had to sit and watch in impotent rage as Speaker Boehner, 81 other Republicans, and nearly all the House Democrats held and passed a vote on a pretty damn great deal for the Democratic White House.

Here’s the quick summary of what Democrats got:
It’s a pretty good deal (for us). No changes to entitlement benefits (i.e. Social Security or Medicare), income taxes go back up to Clinton levels for the super-wealthy (individuals making over $400k/yr, couples making over $450k/yr), everyone else’s income taxes remain at the Bush Tax Cuts levels, unemployment insurance benefits are extended after expiring a few days back, all scheduled “sequester” spending cuts are delayed for 2 more months, milk prices are stabilized, and there’s some delay on a Medicare payment restructuring plan with regards to doctor compensation (but I don’t know much about that). The payroll taxes will roll back up to at least 2008 levels (which helps Social Security’s solvency), which was theoretically always supposed to happen eventually, since the cuts were a short-term stimulus. Democrats only conceded about $200 billion over ten years in potential revenues on the marginal incomes between $200k/$250k and $400k/$450k, which is not that big a problem in the grand scheme. I guess this means there’s a new tax bracket, which is fine by me. There’s also no resolution on the next debt ceiling raise that will need to happen in a few months, but that wouldn’t have been likely in an 11th Hour (or 13th Hour?) deal anyway, and it wasn’t urgent.

About those Spending Cuts:
If this were still going to be the ultra-obstructionist, big-Republican-majority 112th Congress we’ve had since January 2011, it would be a big problem that the spending cuts were delayed by 2 months, because it would just manufacture another artificial crisis/showdown in two months. But the 113th Congress is sworn in on Thursday of this week, and that means a new calculus, even if the Republicans still control the House. I think the 2 month postponement only helps the Democrats, not the Republicans. It’s now more on our turf to decide. Tuesday was the last opportunity for House Republicans to use their big 2010-won majority to shape cuts, and they blew it. Their majority isn’t as big once the 113th Congress is sworn in on Thursday. If Boehner and the remaining GOP moderates keep caving, Pelosi, Reid, and the White House will be calling the shots on things like spending cuts.

Granted, that’s obviously a big if. So let’s examine whether or not that is likely to happen. The 113th Congress will start with a Republican majority with only a 23 seat edge. I think that’s probably in the neighborhood of the size of the northeast/northern Republicans and the small cadre of people who still back Boehner to the hilt. They won’t vote with the Democrats on a lot of stuff, but they’ll vote with them on quite a few national-scale priorities if Boehner asks them to. Boehner won’t get voted out as speaker, but he has clearly lost all control of his caucus. Previously he could control his caucus to some extent, so he could be obstructionist and fight the White House and still get things. But now he can’t deliver Republican majorities for anyone’s bills. His only power play now — to demonstrate any level of control over the situation and to leave any kind of mark in his tenure as speaker — is to show that he can get some things, or rather any things, through. (Because at the end of the day, he’s still not one of the Burn Everything Down tea party Republicans, and he probably thinks of himself as a statesman.) Those things will from now on be designed by the White House and by the Senate Democratic Leadership, and they will only pass with Democratic help in the House. If the filibuster gets reformed, the Senate Democrats will have an even easier time passing legislation to send to the House. So Boehner will have to choose between trying and repeatedly failing to pass conservative legislation because neither the House Democrats nor the House Republican Conservatives will vote for it or trying to persuade House Democrats to vote with him and two dozen Republicans on centrist policies. And some Republicans will agree to do this either because they are actually moderates or because they realize that they are more likely to retain the Republican majority in 2014 by being able to claim some amount of credit and cooperation on accomplishing some stuff than by preventing anything from getting passed for two years. A lot of the few remaining folks in the Boehner loyalist cadre were veterans of the Gingrich Majority of the 1990s that almost collapsed in the 1998 & 2000 elections due to inability to pass almost anything and get it signed into law. The Republicans already got dinged badly in the 2012 House elections (and would probably have lost their majority were it not for favorable redistricting by the state legislators elected in the 2010 Republican wave) because Americans saw them as uncooperative bordering on saboteurs. Right direction or wrong direction, Americans nearly always prefer action in some direction over action in no direction.

About that Debt Ceiling:
The debt ceiling, untouched in this middle-of-the-night deal, is going to need to be raised again in, I guess, March or thereabouts. I’m not totally sure of the timeline but it’s not all that important here. It’ll be after the spending cuts postponement is up in 2 months. But it’s another point where the 2011 Republicans would have seized the opportunity to create a crisis and force a showdown right up to the brink of disaster. They did that in 2011. But the Republican majority and Speaker Boehner in particular won’t have that kind of leverage anymore.

I think the world-ending showdowns from 2011 and 2012 are probably over for the next two years or will be far, far less frequent. Once again, Boehner’s majority will be a lot smaller starting Thursday (only a 23 seat edge) in the 113th Congress, and he no longer has influence over most of that majority. He and some of his supporters would really prefer not to bring down the government and economy, even if the conservative wing is claiming to be just fine with that outcome. Since he’s never going to reach a deal that could win a Republican majority and Senate and White House passage, and will in fact embarrass himself every time he tries (as happened with the “Plan B” proposal), he no longer has an incentive to futz around trying to get such a deal — and the White House knows that. No leverage for him, now. Likelier scenario is that he bangs his chest a bit and then puts together a deal with the Senate Majority and White House that the House Minority Democrats will back. And then he, his merry band of two or three dozen Republicans who aren’t complete maniacs on the debt ceiling, and the House Democrats will cobble together a slim majority and pass a deal. The White House, I believe, has already said that they will exercise the Amendment 14 Section 4 option (a unilateral raise) if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling. They don’t want to do that — it’s still an open question has to whether or not the Courts would accept it and no one really wants to find out the hard way — but they will do it if they have to. So he can negotiate or not negotiate, but the debt ceiling will be raised either way, so it’s in his interest to negotiate the best deal he can get, given that this White House would prefer a deal to that extreme option.

One final unavoidable caveat to all of this:
Never underestimate the power of the current crop of Republicans to cut off their noses to spite their faces. All of what I’m saying could be woefully over-optimistic and naive. They’ve shown on more than a few occasions that they will go to all kinds of unprecedented extremes unseen in the modern era even when it hurts them. They’re a bit fundamentalist in that regard. I’m arguing on a questionable assumption that at least a couple dozen of them (including speaker Boehner) are still acting on a rational self-interest basis. And you know what happens when you assume…

Alabama GOP rejects Dem traitor

Rep. Parker Griffith (R-AL-05), who switched parties less than a year after he was elected as a Democrat, lost his Republican primary tonight to keep his seat. Republicans hated him to begin with, and he found little love from his district’s GOP once he switched after the Congressional GOP leaders recruited him, so they could get his vote on key bills in the House more easily. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent over one million dollars in 2008 to get him elected and were infuriated when he switched parties, requesting their money back in full. Likewise, his whole staff quit (down to the D.C. office intern!) and his campaign consultants abandoned him, to punish him for his betrayal of the party and his values.

Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks (R) led the Republican field tonight and easily pounded the five-and-a-half-month-Republican congressman, avoiding a top-two runoff. Brooks will now go on to run against state legislative aide and businessman Steven Raby (D) in the general election for the seat. Raby was nominated in the Democratic primary tonight there, as well.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Party-switching has consequences

U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith (R-AL-05), who switched parties two weeks ago after serving just under a year as a conservative Democrat in the House, is facing consequences. His consultants immediately bailed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has asked for their $1 million back from the 2008 cycle, and today almost all of his Congressional staff resigned in protest, just in time for a the 2010 session of Congress to begin.

Oh and Republican activists don’t like him and plan to do anything to keep him from surviving the primary this year. Smart decision there, Congressman.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

House Dem switches parties

Maybe’s it’s not surprising, but it’s still interesting that Rep. Parker Griffith (AL-05) switched to the Republican Party today from the Democrats. It’s interesting because he was only elected in 2008, so he’s no long-timer who’s been abandoned by the party. What is most annoying is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent over $1 million in the 2008 cycle to elect this traitor who didn’t deliver much of anything in his first year in office for Democrats and will now deliver even less before probably going down in defeat in the Republican primary this year. They have formally requested that he repay the money, though obviously the time and energy spent there in 2008 is lost.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Democratic candidates and Choice

There’s been a lot of controversy within the Democratic base over the Stupak Amendment, which we’ll be covering more later. Essentially, it’s an amendment by the so-called “pro-life Democrats” in the House and would place de facto restrictions on abortion accessibility if it passes both chambers of Congress. Without going into the amendment itself much, I wanted to look at a point this raises on the role of the Choice issue in the Democratic Party and how it relates to Democratic candidacies.

I obviously can’t speak for all base Democrats, but I think many of us made the critical mistake of underestimating the potential influence of the anti-choice/pro-life caucus within our party in Congress. For example, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA, elected 2006) has been a pretty good Senator so far, but everyone knew he ran as a “pro-life Democrat,” but most of us especially outside Pennsylvania probably thought very little on that point. Of course, some liberal pro-choice activists were rightly worried because Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the major 1992 Supreme Court revision of Roe v. Wade, refers to Bob Casey Sr. who was then the Governor of Pennsylvania and supported a fairly strict abortion restriction law — and it was reasonable to wonder if the father’s views were shared by the junior Senator from Pennsylvania.

As it turns out, yes that appears to be the case:

Now some Senate Democrats, including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are pushing to incorporate the same [Stupak] restrictions in their own bill. Senior Senate Democratic aides said the outcome was too close to call.

I sincerely hope that the Senate does not pass the Casey-Nelson version of Stupak into the Senate health care reform bill (and the signs suggest that it won’t succeed). But that’s not even what I’m looking at here.

The problem as I see it is that I and many others assumed that at the federal legislative level, abortion law was largely a settled matter for the most part. I know many activists who are dedicated in particular to this issue didn’t share that view, but I’m willing to admit they were right and I was wrong on this. I figured that if the Republicans had used nearly uninterrupted control of the whole Congress for twelve years and the White House and the House for six years, but had failed to outlaw abortion, then it was pretty much secure. There were restrictions such as the misleadingly named “partial-birth abortion ban,” but the Republicans were upfront about their hope of banning abortion and they failed. I assumed that pro-Choice Democrats, who do form a majority of the caucus, would be able to keep the “pro-Life” Democrats in check.

So for Casey and other candidates, I figured there was probably very little chance for them to put their views to a vote, and if it did come up I forgot that pro-life Republicans and Democrats would be able to vote in unison to form a majority as they did on the Stupak House amendment. It almost seemed like some Democratic candidates who took pro-life pledges might just have been pandering with no intention of casting damaging votes. And I think I was wrong.

That leads us to a question on how to view pro-life candidates in future. Obviously there are a lot of Democrats who have more conservative opinions on abortion, and that means there’s a role for pro-life candidates. On the other hand, and more importantly, I think a majority of the Democratic base supports the right to choose and women are certainly a majority of the Democratic Party’s membership nationally. The Stupak Amendment is a political problem for the party because it makes it look like the party is “throwing women under the bus,” as many have said in the past few days.

I think we may have reached a day of reckoning on this issue. The Democratic Party is going to face severe electoral difficulties if it doesn’t quickly resolve its position on abortion rights. In future election cycles, I think that activists, the ones who donate their time and money to elect Democrats, are going to be extremely wary of engaging with candidates who oppose the right to choose. We’ve now seen that they’re a real threat to the right to choose, not just a stated or theoretical threat. This is an intra-party policy contradiction that the party leaders have kicked down the road for years. That doesn’t look like an option anymore. Unfortunately, this has never been an issue that party leaders like to discuss openly, even though it needs to be discussed.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.