Holding democracy hostage

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009; 9:21 AM

The best description I've ever seen of the United States Senate is as a group of 100 people, each armed with a nuclear weapon.

We're seeing that now, as one member after another expresses doubts, concerns and reservations about the health care bill, all of which entitles them to special hand-holding and extra media attention.

The latest example is the former Democrat who Democrats love to hate, the man being branded Traitor Joe.

The nuclear analogy is apt because of the Senate's arcane rules, which allows any of the Gang of 100 to hold up a nomination or delay a funding bill, even if his or her objections have nothing to do with the issue at hand. The mere threat of a filibuster can gum up the works. So if a senator wants a pal appointed to a commission, or some home-state pork, or a foot massage, the path is clear: Boost the pain threshold until everyone else relents. Oh, and I suppose acts of conscience qualify as well.

Olympia Snowe got a huge amount of coverage when the Democrats needed her committee vote on the health bill, and Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln are now getting some of that attention. The president's party can't get to 60 without every member voting to cut off a GOP talkathon. But that figure includes two independents, and one of them, Joe Lieberman, just roiled the waters by saying he'd back a filibuster against the public option.

From Lieberman's vantage point, the Democrats walked away from him in 2006, when he lost the Connecticut primary to Ned Lamont and had to claw his way to victory as an independent. He doesn't owe the Dems anything.

From the party's point of view, this is their 2000 VP nominee, a guy who sought their presidential nomination four years later, then kicked them in the teeth by speaking for John McCain at last year's Republican convention. They've tolerated him in their caucus because they need his vote -- control of the Senate rested on it after the '06 elections -- but for Lieberman to back a GOP filibuster really stings. He could vote against the bill on final passage, but this way, he helps the other party block a vote.

In Slate, John Dickerson analyzes the defection:

"From now until health care reform either passes or dies, there will be a series of daily eruptions that will rival the ones from August for passion, confusion, and mischief. Tuesday's installment was Sen. Joe Lieberman's announcement that he will filibuster the health care reform bill in the Senate because it includes a government-run insurance program, even though it's designed to allow states to 'opt out.' . . . Without Joe, in other words, health care reform dies.

"This announcement caused a stir among certain kinds of liberals for two reasons. First, they hate Joe Lieberman with a pore-cleansing passion. The bill of particulars is long, but the primary inflammation comes from Lieberman's support of George Bush's Iraq policy and the senator's suggestion that Democrats who opposed Bush were unpatriotic. He also suggested, during the campaign, that Barack Obama did not always 'put his country first.'

"Second, Lieberman saw fit to announce his effort to kill one form of the public option just as the idea was rising from the table at the morgue. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, after spending weeks privately saying the public option was dead, decided to include a version of it in the Senate bill. . . .

"The bazaar is open in the Senate, and moderate senators who want to be wooed by the White House can do so by expressing their 'concerns.' This can either be an act of ego or a legitimate use of power to get policy changes."

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