After an agonizing week of arm-twisting, and a vote that had to be held open for hours, Senate Democrats got their act together. But only barely.
A full 51 of them voted as a bloc Tuesday, not to pass President Obama’s jobs plan or even to break a GOP filibuster of the bill, but simply for the proposition that the Senate should publicly debate the most pressing issue in the country.
That wasn’t enough to prevail. Under the Senate’s obscure rules, simply debating a piece of legislation often requires 60 votes. And two Dems — Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and John Tester (D-MT) — voted with all 46 present Republicans to block the debate from happening altogether. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also switched his vote to “no” at the last moment, but only as a procedural trick that allows him to bring the jobs bill up for another vote in the future.) But it was enough for the Dems to claim a partisan GOP minority is blocking meaningful action on the economy.
Indeed, that the vote failed was entirely expected. The point of Tuesdays vote was to allow Dems take a message to voters: With unemployment over 9 percent, Republicans unanimously snuffed out the the only bill on the docket that promises to significantly boost the economy — without even allowing a debate on it.
“Republicans unanimously voted against our nation’s economic health to advance their narrow political interests,” charged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in a blunt official statement. “Republicans blocked a bill that would put nearly two million Americans back to work. And they voted against this job-creating bill despite previously supporting many of the ideas it contains, such as tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses.”
But the outcome wasn’t an unambiguous victory for Democrats. Though politically useful it exposed, in tortured fashion, the fundamental strategic incoherence that has defined the party since President Obama took office in 2009. Despite the simple nature of the proposition — Should we debate a jobs bill? — it took Democrats until the 11th hour to round up a bare majority support and avoid shooting the entire party in the foot. And that difficulty bodes poorly for the real, substantive fights — over taxes, entitlements, the very shape of the country — that lay ahead between now and the 2012 elections.This should have been a no-brainer: a symbolic vote on a largely symbolic bill; no public policy at stake; just a simple illustration for voters — we’re for something, they’re for nothing. The ideal outcome for such a strategy is a clean partisan split; all Democrats vote yes, all Republicans vote no. But as has been the case for nearly every high-stakes partisan fight over the last three years, Republicans were united from the outset and Democrats panicked. Before the Dem whip operation could begin in earnest, a handful of party conservatives — fully aware of the stakes — ran to the press to boast that they wouldn’t play ball.
In the end, Democratic leadership was able to rein in most of the dissenters — Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), all of whom had threatened to defect, fell into line and voted to debate the jobs bill. When a delayed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) showed up hours after the vote began, they got their simple majority.
But that’s the absolute least the party could have hoped for. Moments before the roll call, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) jabbed his finger in Reid’s eye by suggesting the Senate set aside the debate question altogether, and move directly to a yes-or-no vote on the underlying jobs bill. That’s a deal Reid would’ve loved to take in theory — but in practice he knew several of his members would run for the hills and leave him embarrassingly shy of the 51 votes he needed to prove his point.
All of these clumsy legislative machinations won’t prevent Dems from using Tuesday’s vote as a powerful election year symbol. But they expose just how fragile the Democratic coalition remains nearly a year after getting routed last November. And they raise a series of uncomfortable questions for President Obama, vulnerable Congressional incumbents, and the rest of the party ahead of the 2012 election.
With the deficit Super Committee’s recommendations due in just over a month, will Democrats be able to withstand a partisan brawl over cuts to entitlements, if the GOP closes ranks against any new revenues? Will they cave to the GOP like they did in late 2010 and leave President Obama a choice between extending all of the Bush tax cuts or letting them all expire at once? And will President Obama be able to run in 2012 as the leader of a party that can be counted on to stand for certain basic principles, or will he have no choice but to run a Trumanesque campaign against a “do nothing Congress” at the risk of rolling over vulnerable members of his own party?
Will they unravel, or won’t they? Tuesday’s vote and the wind up to it don’t inspire confidence.
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