Andrew’s post below is a great summary of the strange and surprising move by Harry Reid last night—forcing a change in the Senate’s rules using an unprecedented maneuver to avoid a vote on President Obama’s stimulus proposal. Reid’s decision illuminated what has been an underappreciated feature of the high-stakes congressional brinksmanship of the 112th Congress: the almost total paralysis of the Senate Democratic caucus.
Because the 2010 elections put Republicans in control of the House while Democrats hold the White House and the Senate, it was easy to imagine at the beginning of the year that this congress would be fairly gridlocked, but you would have assumed that the reason for that would be that the Senate would push the president’s agenda while the House would push a Republican agenda and efforts to negotiate bills between them would break down. That is not what has happened. Instead, the House has indeed pushed a Republican agenda—passing the most conservative budget since the modern budget process was created, passing a repeal of Obamacare, advancing conservative versions of a debt-ceiling increase and appropriations bills—while the Senate has done basically nothing at all: no Senate budget resolution, no Senate version of a debt-ceiling bill, very few appropriations bills, indeed very few substantive policy bills of any kind. And the reason has not been Republican filibusters but the absence of proposed bills and of actual votes called. The Democrats never offered a budget (and they actually used the debt ceiling deal to exempt themselves from having to offer one this year or next year), they never voted on any debt-ceiling proposal until the final deal had been reached, they have not moved anything that might be thought of as the president’s (or the Democrats’) agenda for the year. There has simply been no such agenda. Legislation has not been held up in negotiations between the House and Senate, there hasn’t really been legislation coming out of the Senate. The Democrats, afraid of revealing deep fractures in their caucus (and between their caucus and the president) and of endangering their majority in next year’s elections, have avoided tough votes.
The political press has wanted to cover the congress this year as though the assumption everyone might have made in January had proven true, and so the basic story has been Republican intransigence and an unruly House of Representatives. But this has missed the real story. Maybe the “grand bargain” that Boehner and Obama were hashing out over the summer would have been killed in the House by unhappy conservatives if it had gotten that far (I would like to think it would have been), but in fact it was killed before it ever took actual legislative form by Senate Democrats who did not want to be on the record expressing either support or opposition to it. Presumably the president’s various budget and budget-like proposals all year would have ended up being fundamentally changed in conference committees, but in fact they never got anywhere because the Senate has avoided taking them up. The president is touring the country attacking House Republicans for opposing his “jobs bill,” but Senate Democrats are struggling to find a way to avoid the embarrassment of voting on it. Not House Republican intransigence but Senate Democratic cowardice has defined the 112th Congress.
And that was what last night’s strange maneuver was about: trying to avoid embarrassing Senate Democrats and the president. Mitch McConnell tried to force Senate Democrats to vote on the president’s jobs proposal and EPA rules, and to avoid having to vote one way or another Harry Reid changed the rules of the Senate to limit the minority’s power to offer amendments to bills. The Democrats will probably find a way to vote on a different form of the president’s proposal, and the president (as he indicated yesterday) will probably call that a vote for his bill so Democrats can save face, but the lengths to which the Democratic leader in the Senate would go to avoid actually voting on the president’s agenda is certainly telling.
The substance of Reid’s rule change is not the end of the world. It doesn’t undermine the minority’s power in the Senate all that much, and it may even make the repeal of Obamacare in January of 2013 a little easier if (as seems likely) Republicans win control of the Senate. But forcing a rule change in this way is certainly a very unusual move in the Senate, and it suggests a telling desperation—a desperation to avoid embarrassing and undermining a president whom Senate Democrats clearly think is embarrassing and undermining them, and to avoid taking positions on the great issues of the day in an effort to hang on to power at a time when congressional Democrats have no agenda, no direction, and no backbone.