The two biggest factors limiting Obama are that the American worker needs immediate help and the 60 member Democratic Senate majority in the 111th Congress is and never has been a 60 vote liberal/progressive majority on any issue. The reality of the situation makes the concession Obama made in this tax deal understandable. Here is the legislative pattern under the 111th:
- Obama sets the agenda
- House under Speaker Pelosi would promptly pass the legislation
- US Senate under Majority Leader Reid would kill, vote down, water down, pork up, delay or stall the legislation
- Whatever progressive bill that got to his desk, Obama signed
Obama has compromised as much or more to get Blue Dog Democrat votes than Republican votes. That’s “pre-negotiating” as some may call it. He has to negotiate to unify his caucus by pulling legislation to the right before he can negotiate with the GOP moderates (eg stimulus) or worse yet, the GOP at large (this tax deal). The Democratic Senate caucus is a few votes to the right of the majority of the Democratic core constituency and even more votes to the right of liberal pundits and activists. One GOP Senator (typically Collins, Snowe, Brown) was the minimum needed to break filibusters repeatedly with a unified 59 Democrat to 41 Republican majority. Two is the requirement now that the lame duck Democrat to Republican ratio is 58 to 42 (with Sen. Kirk replacing Roland Burris). If any Blue Dog, principled Democrat or DLC Dem opposes Democratic legislation in the Senate, which they always do, Obama and Senate Dems get them back on board or replace their vote with Republicans with concessions towards the right.
According to this reporting in the NY Times, the existence of significant (more than two Democrats voting “No”) Democratic opposition to Obama’s tax plan was evident well prior to last Saturday’s votes on the 250K and 1mil versions.
By that session, according to administration officials, Mr. Obama had decided not to side with those in his administration and among Congressional Democrats who were spoiling to fight Republicans on the Bush-era tax cuts for those with high incomes even though the Democrats appeared to lack the votes in the Senate. Instead, he would test Republicans’ willingness to make concessions for economic stimulus measures and “the Obama tax cuts” for low- and middle-income workers. Then, if Republicans gave him the back of the hand, he would fight.
Mr. Obama was propelled to his decision in part by a Nov. 18 meeting with Democratic Congressional leaders that persuaded him the Democrats were not unified behind a realistic plan for moving forward.
Obama maintained his preferred tax plan would repeal the Bush tax cuts for any income over 250K, 500K or even 1mil. Last Saturday’s vote proved he needed more than the three New England GOP senators to support any plan as the Obama Tax Cut plan failed 53 to 36 in the Senate after passing the House. So at this point, seven votes short, the choice became:
- A. Publicly protest Republican opposition to his tax proposal while lobbying Blue Dogs behind the scene while the lame duck expires and a Democratically controlled federal government takes blame for letting taxes spike for all Americans and Unemployment Insurance benefits expire for 2 million Americans
- B. Construct a deal that satisfies more Senators to the right of center (e.g. Republicans) so he could get those UI benefits and middle class tax cuts passed and let Reid and Pelosi possibly force votes of DADT repeal and DREAM act to close out the lame duck
Liberals want Obama to choose option “A”. Maybe the people who lost their unemployment in the middle of December and January would appreciate the fight Obama showed while pounding podiums from the bully pulpit with his shirt sleeves rolled up and begin to dislike Republicans even more. I highly doubt it.
That is why he is upset at liberal idealists. What the liberal bloggers and activists suggest would probably deliver the worst possible outcome for the President and the public. You can’t legislate someone back out of poverty after they have missed over a month of unemployment benefits, lost a car, defaulted on their mortgage and/or have been cutting down on food for their family. This is now or never legislation. The needs are urgent and the inclusion of a full Bush Tax Cut extension is as much for Blue Dogs as it is for GOP senators.
Liberals also are wondering: “If Obama is itching to fight from now on, why didn’t he fight for the tax cut deal of choice prior to Election day or earlier this year?”. Well, the same Senators and Representatives saying this tax deal is a travesty in December 2010 requested that this tax cut vote be pushed to December 2010 after mid term elections. There were no votes before November 2nd.
“Everything points to us not voting on it before the election, primarily because the Senate is not going to act,” one senior Democratic House aide said. “While no decisions have been made, I think the likelihood of it occurring before the election is slim to none.”
A significant group of moderate Democrats who are in swing districts have pressed Democratic leaders for a short-term extension of all the of current tax rates, including those for the wealthiest Americans.
Many of these Democrats also would prefer to delay any vote on the issue until after the election. If the House voted for just an extension of tax cuts for those making under $250,000, the aides said, it could give Republicans the ability to argue Democrats voted to hike taxes at a time when the economy remains sluggish.
Several vulnerable House Democrats would rather debate the issue at home and have more time to campaign, as opposed to remaining in Washington and giving the GOP a chance to frame the tax debate, which traditionally favors Republicans.
The message to leaders, one aide to a senior conservative House Democrat said, has been, “Let us go home. If the Senate doesn’t vote on it, we shouldn’t vote on it.”
Any Obama’s legislation was linked to the question: “can it get 60?”
Why not Reform the filibuster you say? The Democrats couldn’t get the votes to reform the filibuster. Here is video (Courtesy TPMtv) from Morning Joe of Chris Dodd defending the filibuster:
I appreciate the frustration many have with the slow pace of the legislative progress. And I certainly share some of my colleagues’ anger with the repetitive use and abuse of the filibuster. Thus, I can understand the temptation to change the rules that make the Senate so unique—and, simultaneously, so frustrating.
But whether such a temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process, or by pure political expedience, I believe such changes would be unwise.
So we get a Senate that is much harder to navigate for a progressive President.
No 60 to close Gitmo:
Democrats have answered by rejecting Obama’s request for money to start the base closure.
“Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States,” declared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at a press conference Tuesday after meeting with other Democratic senators.
Obama had requested the $80 million from the $91 billion war funding bill as part of his promise to close the Guantanamo base by January 2010.
No 60 votes for the Public Option in the Health care bill:
The Senate Finance Committee voted against proposals that would create a government-run insurance plan in the committee’s health care overhaul bill.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., proposed apublic option plan designed along the lines of Medicare, where the government would decide unilaterally how much to pay doctors and hospitals for people who choose to enroll in the public plan. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. tweaked it by mandating that the government negotiate rates with health care providers, like a private insurer does, instead of simply mandating them. Schumer had touted this as middle ground that responds to market forces.
But after five hours of debate, both amendments lost. Most Democrats supported Rockefeller’s proposal — with the exception of five — but the votes were not enough to pass either proposals out of the committee.
No 60 for the Fin Reg bill reforms to be fully funded by fees charged to large banks:
This is where Senator Feingold’s principles come into play. Because he refused to vote for cloture on the Dodd-Frank bill without major revisions, a coalition of 60 liberal votes became impossible. So Senator 61, Scott Brown, became the dealmaker.[…]
As it turns out, there were real consequences of Feingold forcing Brown into the pivot position. One of the provisions to come out of the House-Senate conference was a levy on large financial firms to pay for the costs of financial regulation. This provision was quickly dubbed a “bank tax”. As a result, Brown, who had supported the earlier Senate version, began to waver. The provision not only ran counter to his ideological opposition to anything resembling a tax increase, but would have been costly to large financial firms in Brown’s home state.
In the aftermath of Byrd’s death, a defection by Brown would necessitate picking up both Democrats who had opposed the original Senate bill, Feingold and Washington’s Maria Cantwell. Cantwell came around, Feingold didn’t, and the bank tax was gone. As a result, $19 billion in costs were shifted from the banks to the taxpayer. Feingold has performed the legislative equivalent of voting for Nader in Florida in the 2000 presidential election: standing on principle only to get an outcome he couldn’t possibly have wanted.
No 60 votes to Trying terror suspects in civilian courts:
Opponents include Democrats such as Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who was among five lawmakers last week who urged Attorney General Eric Holder to reverse his decision to try Mohammed and other conspirators in civilian courts, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who said a local trial would be too disruptive, whether in Manhattan or upstate.
No 60 votes for Climate Change:
Conceding that they can’t find enough votes for the legislation, Senate Democrats on Thursday abandoned efforts to put together a comprehensive energy bill that would seek to curb greenhouse gas emissions, delivering a potentially fatal blow to a proposal the party has long touted and President Obama campaigned on.
No 60 votes for the deficit reducing DREAM Act:
A number of centrist Democrats are also promising to fight the proposal. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) voted against the measure three years ago and “is inclined to oppose the bill again,” spokesman John LaBombard wrote Friday in an e-mail.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who voted in favor of the measure in 2007, says he won’t do the same this time around. His opposition, according to spokesman Jake Thompson, is twofold. First, the Senate should be focusing on jobs and the economy before it does anything else, Thompson said. And second, the provisions of the DREAM Act should be included as part of comprehensive immigration reform — an effort, he said, that shouldn’t proceed “until the borders have been secured.”[…]
Among the Democrats who opposed the bill in 2007, the offices of Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) also did not respond to calls and e-mails. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) — also “no” votes in 2007 — could not be reached
No 60 votes for Repealing DADT prior to the Lame Duck (and possibly not during the lame duck):
However, all 59 Democrats aren’t there, surprise surprise. Ben Nelson, who is up for reelection in 2012, doesn’t want to do it, it seems. Jim Webb, also up in 2012, is iffy. Mark Pryor, not up in ’12 but from Arkansas, would be a surprise yes vote.
Then there’s Blanche Lincoln, the other Arkansan. She just lost and her political career is over. At this point, is she really going to vote against this?
The bottom line here is, again, what a culturally reactionary institution the US Senate is. Roughly 65% of Americans and an even slightly higher percentage of service people support repeal. And the glorious US Senate faithfully represents neither of those groups.
When the Blue Dogs and three New England GOP Senators block legislation that passes the House and needs 60 Senate “Yays” to get to an Obama signature, then the ire reserved for Obama should really be primarily focused upon the members of the Senate and their lack of will to reform for the filibuster.