By Perry Bacon Jr. and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Senate Democrats spent their first full day holding 60 votes just as they have spent the previous 2 1/2 years without such a supermajority: scrambling to find Republican support for their key initiatives in order to choke off potential filibusters.
In short, Tuesday's seating of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) did little to change the balance of power in the chamber.
Democrats have a large enough majority to pass bills without any GOP support, but they are grappling with internal divisions on key issues such as health care, climate change and union organizing. In addition, caucus leaders and President Obama would like at least some Republican backing on key measures so they can say they are enacting a bipartisan agenda, which then-Sen. Obama made a cornerstone of his 2008 campaign.
Some conservative Democrats who live in GOP-leaning states believe that getting Republican votes on controversial bills provides them with a line of defense against political attacks back home.
Moreover, two members of the Democratic caucus, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), have not cast a vote in months. It is not clear whether the health of either elder statesman -- Kennedy, 77, has brain cancer, and Byrd, 91, is battling the effects of a staph infection incurred during a hospitalization in May -- will allow them to participate in any key matter before the Senate.
In welcoming Franken to Capitol Hill this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) sounded a conciliatory note.
"Democrats aren't looking at Senator Franken's election as an opportunity to ram legislation through the Senate," he said Monday. "In turn, Senate Republicans must understand that Senator-elect Franken's election does not abdicate them from the responsibility of governing. That is why we have and will continue to offer Senate Republicans a seat at the table. It is up to them to decide whether they will sit down and work for the common good or continue to be the 'Party of No.' "
But the arrival of a 60th Democratic vote has been accompanied by increasing pressure from liberal groups nationwide that have helped bankroll the party's electoral successes the past few years. They are now demanding that Democrats follow through on their campaign promises, with or without Republican votes.
"When it comes to health care, energy and the economy, Democrats have no excuses not to deliver on the changes that voters wanted last November," said Justin Ruben, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn.org. "On health care and on energy . . . you have conservative Democrats saying we have to compromise. That dynamic has just changed. Really they don't" have to compromise.
MoveOn blasted White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel this week after he suggested in an interview that Democrats could compromise on a government alternative to private health insurance companies and accept a weakened version of a public option plan. MoveOn urged its members to call the White House and express their anger at Emanuel.
Meanwhile, the liberal blog Firedoglake is urging its readers to call liberal members of the House and insist on a "no" vote for any health-care legislation that lacks the public option.
Referring to health-care legislation, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the chamber's most liberal members, who almost always votes with the Democrats, said, "I would like to see Republicans coming on board, but you can't compromise on a strong bill to get Republicans on board for a weaker one."
Reid spent much of yesterday huddled with a handful of Senate Republicans, looking to build bipartisan support for health-care legislation. At the same time, he lobbied his GOP colleagues for changes in the legislation that will appeal to members like Sanders.
"Our strong preference is to pass a bipartisan bill," Reid said after the meeting.
If efforts fail on the bipartisanship front, Democrats are hoping that a tactical parliamentary move will get them around the need for GOP support.
In a closed-door meeting immediately after Franken's swearing-in, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked his caucus to always join ranks in supporting cloture votes. Those procedural votes require 60 senators to agree to halt debate, a step that would derail any potential filibuster.
Once cloture is invoked and the bill moves toward a final vote, Democrats would need just 50 votes on the last roll call, allowing up to 10 conservative Democrats to vote against the legislation.
But conservative Democrats such as Ben Nelson (Neb.) will not commit to backing every cloture motion. They say it is important for Democrats to continually seek GOP support, no matter their numbers.
"It's clear that bipartisanship will need to be sought," Nelson said, adding: "People back home like bipartisanship."
Nelson's state gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a 15 percentage-point victory over Obama last fall, and he has been one of the Democrats targeted for pressure by MoveOn and other groups. "I pay no attention to it. I mean that. They just help Nebraska businesses," Nelson said, suggesting that his local broadcasters get a boost from advocacy ads.
"People are firing away before they have to fire," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "I don't know the value of attacking Democrats, period. I can understand the value of advocacy for issues. I don't understand the value of attacking."