Senate Democrats Have a Choice

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speak before standing at the top of the House steps of the U.S. Capitol as they await the arriva... WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speak before standing at the top of the House steps of the U.S. Capitol as they await the arrival of the casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. Ginsburg, who was appointed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, served on the high court from 1993, until her death on September 18, 2020. She is the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol. (Photo by Alex Brandon - Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS

(First, I’d be grateful for tips, leads, info on the below from any and all regular senate – and now White House – sources either by email or secure channels.)

Democrats, particularly Senate Democrats, already face a stark choice about those “ground rules” I mentioned last week. As noted then, what’s at stake isn’t only effective action today but the ground rules that will shape the next two years and either doom or give Democrats a fighting chance in the 2022 midterms. Last night the Post ran a story headlined: “Fight over the rules grinds the Senate to a halt, imperiling Biden’s legislative agenda“. It’s part of an emerging genre about bulging to-do lists, Republican game-playing and impeachment trials slowing the Senate to a crawl.

What’s happening exactly?

Quite simply, Mitch McConnell is now using the filibuster to stop Democrats from becoming the Senate majority.

Yes, you heard that right. The Democrats won the Senate. But now Mitch McConnell is using the filibuster to stop them from taking it over and leading it. Without a new agreement, the Senate is still operating under the old Congress’s agreement, which means that all the committees are chaired by Republicans – a very big deal since all nominations go through committees first.

Freshman Senators like Warnock and Ossoff can’t even get their committee assignments yet.

The issue comes down to the minutiae of the organizing agreement, which is essentially a constitution of the Senate which gets passed with every new Congress. Democrats aren’t yet unified on abolishing the filibuster. So for the moment that question is moot. But McConnell wants Democrats to agree in advance, somehow written into the agreement, that they will never abolish or weaken the filibuster during the duration of this Congress. In other words, despite no immediate plans and not enough votes, Democrats wouldn’t have the threat of eliminating the filibuster if Republicans obstruct everything (which is almost certain.)

Chuck Schumer has already said that demand is a non-starter. So why not just impose an agreement? Because they’d need Republicans to override McConnell’s filibuster. Because they’re still operating under the rules of the last Congress. Because they don’t have a new operating agreement. It’s an absurdity making a mockery of the new majority. And it’s an example of how the filibuster now rules all without even being officially invoked.

For the moment there’s no clutch issue. Republicans aren’t yet blocking a key appointment. There’s no imminent vote on a relief bill. The former President’s impeachment trial is more than a week away. From this perspective, there’s no terrible urgency in haggling out a deal. But this gets it all wrong. As I mentioned over the weekend, Democratic Senators can’t work less hard than the tens of millions of voters who put them in office. Yes, there’s COVID relief and impeachment trials and we keep hearing that there’s only so much time in the day. Make more time. This gets it all wrong. You can’t engage bad faith actions or bad faith actors.

Making a mockery of yourself empowers foes and demoralizes supporters. Politics isn’t all policy literalism and parliamentary procedure. To do it right you frequently have to see beyond those critical but thin elements.

Having the old majority’s senators still running the committees weeks after the new Congress kicked off is making a mockery of yourself. Or rather it is allowing Mitch McConnell to make a mockery of the new majority.

In ordinary times there’d be no terrible urgency and you could take a few weeks to haggle it out. But these are not ordinary times. There is terrible urgency. Eventually, somehow this will get worked out. But what’s the urgency for Mitch McConnell? There is none. I assure you he’s happy to let things ride with his party still controlling most of the Senate indefinitely. In this framework Democrats have ceded all initiative to McConnell unless and until they announce a deadline after which they’ll impose an operating agreement by voting to set aside the filibuster rules (50+VP) and do so with a majority vote.

The Democrats have inherited a broken country, have huge expectations resting on them and have history against them in the 2022 midterms. They have to rise to the urgency of the moment. Setting the right ground rules now is critical.

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