Senate Republicans seem to have one answer for Democrats: No

By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 29, 2010

In his State of the Union address Wednesday night, President Obama asked lawmakers to "work through our differences, to overcome the numbing weight of our politics."

On Thursday, Republicans sent their answer.

The Senate took a vote on extending the federal debt ceiling -- without which the United States would go into default. All 40 Republicans voted no.

The Senate took a vote on requiring Congress not to pass legislation that it can't pay for. All 40 Republicans voted no.

The Senate took a final vote on passing the overall plan. Thirty-nine Republicans voted no. The 40th, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), skipped the vote.

The state of the union is . . . unchanged.

The afternoon was consumed by a debate about whether to confirm Ben Bernanke for a second term as Fed chairman. Four years ago, when President George W. Bush nominated his former economic adviser to the Fed, the Senate confirmed him by a voice vote and only one Republican expressed opposition. This time around, President Obama nominated Bernanke to a second term. To thank Obama for this bipartisan gesture, 18 of the chamber's Republicans voted no.

In all of these instances, Republicans knew that failure was not an option; voting down the debt increase or rejecting Bernanke would send markets into chaos. But they also recognized that these were free votes for the minority, because Democrats, in the majority, would "own" any failure.

Before the debt-ceiling vote, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, warned that a default by the Treasury would have a "cataclysmic result in the financial markets."

Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the top Republican on budget matters, rose in opposition. "It is not responsible to raise the debt ceiling in this manner if you're not going to put in place any responsible activity to bring under control the rising debt."

Not going to put in place any responsible activity to bring under control the rising debt? The Senate voted Tuesday on just such an activity, a debt commission whose recommendations would get an up-or-down vote in Congress. Gregg joined Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) in introducing the bill, and Obama endorsed it. But a majority of Gregg's GOP caucus opposed the panel.

Baucus, the Democratic floor leader, realized he was wasting his breath. "I think we all know where we are," he said before one of Thursday's votes, declining the time he had been given to speak.

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