Tuesday, February 06, 2007

How to gum up the Senate and flout the popular will

The dictionary definition of democracy reads as follows: “Government by the people….a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people,” or in the lawmakers, who act as the people’s “elected agents.”

But here is the state of American democracy this morning:

At a time when only nine percent of the American people want President Bush to send more troops to Iraq (according to the latest Fox News poll); at a time when 64 percent of the people believe Congress “has not been assertive enough…in challenging the Bush administration’s conduct of the war” (Newsweek poll); at a time when 61 percent want the Senate to pass a resolution opposing the Bush troop hike (Gallup); at a time when 55 percent trust the majority Democrats to make Iraq decisions and only 32 percent trust Bush (Newsweek poll again); at a time when Americans consider Iraq to be the most important issue on the national agenda (CBS and CNN polls); and at a time when voting Americans, having just erased Republican rule on Capitol Hill, are clearly signaling that they want Congress to do something, or at least say something, about Bush’s ruinous war…..

The Republicans in the U.S. Senate have shut down the chamber’s scheduled debate on Iraq.

Wait, let’s be more precise: Last night, the Republicans used (perfectly legal) parliamentary maneuvers to stop the Senate from debating Iraq for the very first time, a debate that would have signaled the end of four years of institutional acquiescence to the Bush White House.

Politically speaking, this is risky behavior. Outside of the most fervent red states, Republicans running for office in 2008 already recognize the pitfalls of being affiliated with the party that launched and enabled the Iraq war. And now, by muzzling Senate debate (by essentially acting in defiance of the popular will), they risk being labeled anew as water carriers for a failed war president.

No doubt it can be argued that what happened last night in the Senate chamber was actually more complicated than what I have just described. Senate rules provide the minority party with ample opportunities to gum up the works (as the Democrats well know, having taken full advantage in recent years, by blocking Bush judicial nominees), and now it’s the GOP that is jerking those parliamentary levers.

Republicans can claim that they really aren’t trying to stop the Senate from debating, and even passing, a resolution that would essentially be a no-confidence verdict on Bush. They can claim that they’re really not intending to muzzle the aforementioned Warner resolution, which seeks to put the Senate on record in opposition to the so-called Bush Surge. They can claim (as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell put it last night) that “we’re not trying to stop this debate. We’re trying to structure it.”

They can claim that the majority Democrats are being unreasonable by refusing to agree with a GOP suggestion that any resolution should require 60 of the 100 votes for passage (the filibuster-proof margin), rather than a simple 51-49 majority. They can claim that the Democrats are being unreasonable by refusing to allow the GOP to offer several Bush-supportive resolutions, including one that simply states that all troop activity in Iraq should be fully funded. They can claim that this Democratic intransigence has left them no alternative – which is why, in last night’s ultimate parliamentary action, they managed to prevent the chamber from even starting the debate over the Warner resolution.

And how did they do that? By exercising their minority rights. By stopping the Senate from proceeding with its intended business. Under Senate rules, there’s only one way to defeat such a stalling tactic: round up 60 votes. But last night the Democrats couldn’t get 60 votes. They got only 49 – a majority of those who voted, but not nearly good enough.

So the Senate’s attempt to take a more active role in Iraq policy was over before it even began.

Again, the GOP was within its rights to game the system, because Senate rules virtually invite it. But the claims invoked by Bush’s Capitol Hill loyalists have only a surface plausibility. It has been well reported that the Bush White House has repeatedly conferred with Senate Republican leaders on parliamentary strategy. It has been well reported that the Bush White House is intensely focused on derailing the Warner resolution and halting (or at least diluting) a no-confidence vote on Bush. The administration understands the symbolic power of such a resolution, especially since Senator John Warner has such strong pro-military credentials.

So while Mitch McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders insist that their thwarting of majority will is really just about safeguarding minority rights, what matters most is their underlying motivation: to protect Bush from even the most toothless form of accountability, in accordance with Bush’s wishes.

One can see this motivation at work in the Republican strategy. Three resolutions were theoretically in play: the key Warner measure, a John McCain measure (supporting the Bush troop hike), and (most importantly) a measure by GOP senator Judd Gregg that would put the Senate on record as opposing any future funding cuts for the troops in Iraq. The GOP figured that, by demanding a 60-vote minimum for passage, the Warner measure might fail (because passage would thus require nine or 10 defecting Republicans) – whereas the Gregg measure would probably have the best shot at winning (because a lot of Democrats would feel compelled to vote for it, fearful of being tagged as “against the troops” if they didn’t).

In other words, checkmate to the GOP. It’s a textbook case of how the Senate’s minority party can punch above its weight.

But most Americans aren’t going to track all these parliamentary nuances. They’re more likely to reduce this incident to political shorthand – and here is where the Democrats potentially have the advantage. The shorthand is this: Bush’s party has defied the popular will, and muzzled a debate that the American people want; Bush’s lawmakers shut down debate on Iraq because they’re too afraid to cast an actual vote. Or some other variation of those themes.

There will soon be other opportunities to vent the Iraq issue in the Senate, perhaps via amendments to impending bills; indeed, if McConnell and the others feel political heat, they might give ground on the resolution debate. Bush’s emissaries may have won this initial parliamentary battle, but they may not be able to protect Bush indefinitely. In the end, they too may feel compelled to act as the people’s elected agents.