No celebration of the 50th filibuster

Tom Coburn was the filibuster-loving Senate Republicans' golden boy.
Tom Coburn was the filibuster-loving Senate Republicans' golden boy. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It was a sullen celebration of a major milestone.

For anniversaries, the 50th is golden. But as Republicans returned to town on Monday to mark their 50th filibuster of this 111th Congress, there were no reminiscences about filibusters past, no swapping of old snapshots of favorite obstruction memories.

In fact, only one Republican, the indefatigable Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, even bothered to go to the Senate floor to speak in favor of the filibuster -- this one an attempt to block unemployment benefits for millions of jobless Americans. The "debate" amounted to an extended quorum call -- a procedure under which the Senate's presiding officer sits in a chair and waits for somebody to show up and talk.

For the second time in as many months, Republicans had tried to block the unemployment benefits. Also for the second time, they failed. Four of their number, including "tea party" favorite Scott Brown of Massachusetts, sided with the Democrats. "Families in Massachusetts and across the nation are hurting," Brown said in a statement rebuking his colleagues after the vote. He said he preferred to "continue the debate rather than obstruct it."

In addition to the four defectors, three Republicans skipped the vote entirely. With the outcome known by both sides well beforehand, the most dramatic moment on the Senate floor during the vote Monday evening was Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) using a toothpick to clean his teeth.

"This is getting to be a bad habit," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). (He was speaking of the filibusters, not his colleague's dental hygiene.)

Last year, the minority had a woeful win percentage, prevailing in filibusters only about 10 percent of the time. This was supposed to change with Brown's victory in a Massachusetts special election, which gave Republicans, on paper, their 41st vote, and with it the power to block anything and everything offered up by the Democrats.

But this power proved to be a liability, as Republicans have shied away from using their new clout to bring down economic stimulus, unemployment benefits and financial reforms. Even before the twin defeats on unemployment insurance, Republican opposition crumbled on an economic stimulus package. Now Republican opposition to financial regulatory reform is breaking down; Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a member of the banking committee, said his colleagues made "a strategic error" in not working with Democrats on the bill, which is likely to pass.

A month ago, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) made a lonely stand to block unemployment benefits, but his Republican colleagues fled in panic, and the extension of benefits passed, 78 to 19. Yet on Monday, Coburn, seemingly determined to test Albert Einstein's definition of insanity, reprised his colleague's failed performance. He led Republicans on yet another fight to block the jobless benefits unless lawmakers found budget cuts to pay the $9 billion cost.

Democrats could scarcely believe the gift the opposition had again handed them. At 9:30 a.m., word crossed the wire that Richard Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, would hold a teleconference to denounce the Republicans. Exactly 32 minutes later came word that Schumer, who is vying with Durbin to succeed Reid if the majority leader loses his reelection race in Nevada, would also have a teleconference to denounce the Republicans.

"The real question is how many on the other side of the aisle will blindly follow their leadership," Schumer said.

The leader he was talking about, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke on the Senate floor before the unemployment debate. "Americans worry that we're on the cusp, or maybe past the cusp, of a debt crisis," he said.

But McConnell didn't have an appetite for defending the plan to block the unemployment benefits; that unsavory task fell to Dr. Coburn. He arrived on the Senate floor with a blown-up picture of a tot named Madeleine, who in the picture was sucking a pacifier and wearing a sign protesting her share of the national debt: "I'm already $45,000 in debt and I only own a dollhouse."

Coburn turned from Madeleine to some nautical imagery. "We're in water that this country has never seen before," he reported. "I think we have less than five years to fix our ship. . . . It's sending us out to sea without a rudder."

Coburn is right about the indebted ship of state. Problem is, he, and his colleagues, have voted for years for tax cuts and war funding that added to the debt. And Coburn supported the $700 billion bank bailout, which makes it a bit tricky to deny $9 billion for the jobless.

This inconsistency brought Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to the floor; he picked up Coburn's nautical metaphor and flogged it. "As you sail into this economic storm, while the people at the top get a big old parachute and they are lifted gently to the ground or allowed to get gently grounded, the folks at the bottom, they are just pushed off a cliff."

Cliffs and parachutes? On a boat?

It didn't matter. The 50th filibuster was sinking fast.

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