The Senate Big Picture

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From TPM Reader JB, an old senate hand, now decamped to distant parts …

As you know, I used to work in the Senate. When I did, the threat of extended debate was made fairly often: usually to delay legislation until some matter of parochial concern to one or more Senators was dealt with, occasionally to threaten with extended publicity the passage of legislation thought to be unpopular.

It was always understood that legislation thought deeply inimical to one or more states’ most vital interests might be opposed with every resource at the disposal of an individual Senator or group of Senators. The inhibitions — all of them unwritten — against deploying those resources routinely, though, were considerable. If this had not been the case, legislation like the 1986 Tax Reform Act (which overhauled the entire federal tax code), the Goldwater-Nichols bill of that year restructuring the Pentagon, and the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments could never have been enacted.

Within today’s Senate it appears understood that these inhibitions are all gone now. Even the threat of extended debate — the traditional filibuster — has degenerated into the threat to prevent debate, by objecting to the motion to proceed to legislation. Southern segregationists in the 1960s, facing the passage of voting rights legislation aimed at uprooting the foundations of their states’ political and social order, did not go as far in obstructing the consideration of legislation as opponents of health care reform are going today.

Of course, politics then or even in the 1980s and ’90s when I worked in Washington were different. Elected officials were not nearly as tightly bound to the permanent campaign; it was usually enough for Senators in particular to vote against legislation opposed by key constituency groups to satisfy them. With much more information now available about the legislative process, this isn’t good enough anymore. Senators feel compelled now to demonstrate that they are fully “on board” by fighting legislation opposed by organized interests every step of the way.

This, though, begs an important question. There are Senators who needn’t feel so compelled at all — older Senators mostly, either in their last term or having won reelection by such large margins it would be difficult to challenge them in a party primary. Republican Senators fitting this description include Lugar, Voinovich, Cochran, Alexander, and the two Senators from Maine. One can perhaps see why they would vote against health care reform, or offer amendments to it. Why do they think it necessary to vote against taking it up, or against putting a time limit on debate of the legislation?

As you observe, this question has not been asked either by the Obama administration or by Democrats in the Senate. I don’t know why, honestly. Overcoming opposition by attempting to divide it is second nature to me, and it isn’t as if GOP Senators like the ones I’ve named really gain anything by backing up their anti-health reform colleagues to the point of attempting to make it impossible for the Senate to address this issue at all.

Part of me suspects that Democrats have difficulty suppressing their instinct for seeking victimhood. Perhaps they half-expect health care reform to fail, and want to be sure they have someone to blame for their misfortune. It may be they are themselves so tightly bound to the permanent campaign that they fear muddying their 2010 message in some states by having some Republicans on their side, at least when it comes to letting legislation be voted on.

Or it may be simpler than that. Harry Reid may just not be much of a legislator; Barack Obama isn’t either. At any rate, there are some Republican Senators who are willy-nilly locked into opposing health care reform more tenaciously than they would have opposed any legislation on any subject earlier in their careers. They are paying no price for doing this; they’re not even having to explain it. It is a wonder.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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