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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