Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Parliamentary Parties and the Lame Duck Session


My previous posts on the Republicans as a parliamentary party were based on the assumption that Mitch McConnell would be able to hold the Senate Republicans together on procedural votes in order to block Democratic legislative initiatives. And yet President Obama has been successful in passing several different laws during the lame duck session. (Note this remarkable statement by Lindsay Graham complaining of Republican "capitulation.")

So what gives?

The answer is complicated. In the case of the tax/stimulus legislation, McConnell himself wanted to make a deal because it benefited perhaps the most powerful Republican constituency-- wealthy contributors who want to avoid paying more taxes and didn't want to risk that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would actually end for some period of time. Therefore McConnell was willing to let this particular legislation go forward. In other cases, like the vote repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, different sorts of Republican Senators jumped ship. Some were retiring at the end of this Congress. Some, like Scott Brown, faced considerable pressure given the states they represent. And some like Lisa Murkowski, had very little reason to be a team player because the Republicans had just tried to oust her.

One should not assume, however, that Obama and the Democrats have suddenly found a magic formula that will make the Republicans' tactics obsolete. Indeed, it's difficult to draw many lessons from the lame duck session about what President Obama and the Democrats will or should do during the next Congress. As before, they have to find ways to break Republican unanimity in the Senate, but this will be harder to do now that there are more Republicans, so a few defections won't matter as much. (Indeed, if McConnell plays his cards right, he will probably let a few Republicans off the hook on occasion as long as he always has 40 votes in hand.)

This suggests, ever more strongly, that the best move for Obama and the Democrats would be to change the Senate rules when Congress reconvenes in January and reform the system of filibusters and holds. One hopes that Obama and Reid have learned something from the past two years. They should understand that the Republicans will eventually be moved to change the Senate rules themselves when they next gain control of the Senate. The Republicans will not feel guilty about reducing minority rights in the Senate when they regain power simply because the Democrats were feckless when Republicans were in the minority. Because change is going to come at some point, it would be better for the Democrats to make the change now when they can still gain some advantage from it.

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