The GOP's no-exit strategy

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Normal human beings -- let's call them real Americans -- cannot understand why, 10 months after President Obama's inauguration, Congress is still tied down in a procedural torture chamber trying to pass the health-care bill Obama promised in his campaign.

Last year, the voters gave him the largest popular-vote margin won by a presidential candidate in 20 years. They gave Democrats their largest Senate majority since 1976 and their largest House majority since 1992.

Obama didn't just offer bromides about hope and change. He made specific pledges. You'd think that the newly empowered Democrats would want to deliver quickly.

But what do real Americans see? On health care, they read about this or that Democratic senator prepared to bring action to a screeching halt out of displeasure with some aspect of the proposal. They first hear that a bill will pass by Thanksgiving and then learn it might not get a final vote until after the new year.

Is it any wonder that Congress has miserable approval ratings? Is it surprising that independents, who want their government to solve a few problems, are becoming impatient with the current majority?

Democrats in the Senate -- the House is not the problem -- need to have a long chat with themselves and decide whether they want to engage in an act of collective suicide.

But it's also time to start paying attention to how Republicans, with Machiavellian brilliance, have hit upon what might be called the Beltway-at-Rush-Hour Strategy, aimed at snarling legislative traffic to a standstill so Democrats have no hope of reaching the next exit.

We know what happens when drivers just sit there when they're supposed to be moving. They get grumpy, irascible and start turning on each other, which is exactly what the Democrats are doing.

Republicans know one other thing: Practically nobody is noticing their delay-to-kill strategy. Who wants to discuss legislative procedure when there's so much fun and profit in psychoanalyzing Sarah Palin?

Yet there was a small break in the Curtain of Obstruction this week when Republican senators unashamedly ate every word they had spoken when George W. Bush was in power about the horrors of filibustering nominees for federal judgeships. On Tuesday, a majority of Republicans tried to block a vote on the appointment of David F. Hamilton, a rather moderate jurist, to a federal appeals court.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama explained the GOP's about-face by saying: "I think the rules have changed."

That was actually a helpful comment, because the Republicans have changed the rules on Senate action up and down the line. Hamilton's case is just the one instance that finally got a little play.

Thankfully, this filibuster failed because some Republicans were embarrassed by it. But Republican delaying tactics have made Obama far too wary about judicial nominations for fear of controversy. He is well behind his predecessor in filling vacancies, a shameful capitulation to obstruction. There's also the fact that the nomination of Christopher Schroeder as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, which helps to vet judges, is snarled -- guess where? -- in the Senate.

Republicans are using the filibuster to stall action even on bills that most of them support. Remember: The rule is to keep Democrats from ever reaching the exit.

As of last Monday, the Senate majority had filed 58 cloture motions requiring 32 recorded votes. One of the more outrageous cases involved an extension in unemployment benefits, a no-brainer in light of the dismal economy. The bill ultimately cleared the Senate this month by 98 to 0.

The vote came only after the Republicans launched three filibusters against the bill and tried to lard it with unrelated amendments, delaying passage by nearly a month. And you wonder why it's so hard to pass health care?

Defenders of the Senate always say the Founders envisioned it as a deliberative body that would cool the passions of the House. But Sessions unintentionally blew the whistle on how what's happening now has nothing to do with the Founders' design.

The rules have changed. The extra-constitutional filibuster is being used by the minority, with extraordinary success, to make the majority look foolish, ineffectual and incompetent. By using Republican obstructionism as a vehicle for forcing through their own narrow agendas, supposedly moderate Democratic senators will only make themselves complicit in this humiliation.


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