January 2009 cannot come fast enough, Democrats were saying for the past two years. Now, they control the White House and enjoy expanded majorities in both chambers of Congress. Yet, the same refrain is now being head: January 2011 and 60 Democratic Senators cannot come fast enough, some are saying, as if we are supposed to believe that 41 Republicans have enough power to block a majority made up of 58 Senators.
I will leave for another day the debate over the filibuster and the fact that a bill systematically requiring 60 votes to pass is a very recent phenomenon. For now, what has become most evident is that centrist Democrats are a far bigger obstacle to liberal objectives than Republicans, and that the White House has much more to fear from Democratic obstructionism than from the GOP’s opposition.
Politico is reporting that a group of Senators are constituting a centrist caucus within the Democratic Party. Yesterday, they held a meeting to discuss the ways in which they could defeat some of their fellow Democrats’ objectives, on issues ranging from spending to taxes. The list of these Senators is certainly unsurprising: Led by Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson, the group also includes Mary Landrieu, Claire McCaskill, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Mark Warner, Bill Nelson, Amy Klobuchar, Jeanne Shaheen, Robert Casey and Mark Begich.
Not only are these Senators signaling they will not vote for some for their party’s priorities, they are going much further in constituting a coherent caucus that will actively seek to block their party’s leadership and push legislation so far to the right as to gain the support of the GOP at the expense of Democrats’.
“If we’re going to get 60, we have to have the pragmatists, the moderates in the Senate, in the Democratic caucus working together and reaching out to those on the other side, of like minds,” said Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, explicitly stating that the gang would ally itself with Republicans against liberals.
In particular, this centrist caucus are zeroing in on Obama’s plan to let Bush’s tax cuts on higher-income revenues expire. “I do think that before we raise revenue, we first should look to see if there are ways we can cut back on spending,” said Bayh, using one of the GOP’s most prized talking points. That’s right, after eight years during which Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthy were one of the most prominent Democratic talking points, a strikingly large number of Democratic Senators are moving to protect one of Bush’s signature pieces of legislation - a legislation their party has agitated against for years!
Should supporting the expiration of Bush’s tax cuts not be a minimal commitment required of Democratic Senators? Worse still, it is important to point out that what those Democrats are asking is a tax cut on the wealthy rather than a stop to a planned tax hike: Bush’s cuts are scheduled to expire in 2011, and the tax rate on the highest bracket will increase by itself to 39.6%. A bill would only be required to keep the rate at 35%.
What makes things particularly confusing is that the centrist caucus is simultaneously favored to cutting taxes and opposed to spending provisions because they would increase the deficit. And we are thus left with the same combination of policies Bush exercised over the past eight years and that has come to pass as fiscal conservatism: no to social spending and to infrastructure spending, but yes to defense spending and to tax cuts on the wealthy.
Let’s take the issue of health care as an indication of what this centrist caucus could do to progressive’s priorities. The White House has signaled that it will let Congress write the bill based on “guiding principles,” and that means that it will be crucial to see who has most influence in shaping the reform. And the first hints should give liberals heartburn.
It is no surprise that Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus is planning to take the lead on the issue, but his announcement that he will introduce a bipartisan bill with Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Now that they have a majority of 58 Senators, do Democrats really want the terms of health care reform to be dictated by a conservative lawmaker who rarely displays centrist streaks and who voted against S-CHIP expansion last month? (Nine Republican Senators voted for S-CHIP, so it’s not like Grassley was merely following party discipline.)
“If [Baucus] is trying to get a bill with 80 votes, you know, and if it does — and it’s a good product, I don’t see any need for Reid to interfere,” Grassley said. Given that conservatives are adamantly opposed to universal health care or to individual mandates and given how ambitious health care reform needs to be, it goes without saying that a bill that would manage to get the support of 80 Senators would be so washed down that it would barely register as change.
Rather than focus on Republicans, proponents of health care reform should be far more weary of the centrist caucus and of the fact that its members are so committed to watering down legislation that they are willing to allow Grassley (not even Snowe or Specter!) to author Obama’s health care reform. As Congressional Quarterly points out:
Republicans have already begun to warn that they would oppose a health care overhaul that includes a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurance, fearing it could lead to a single-payer system as people drop their private insurance or employers stop offering it. As a result, Democrats may be forced to drop the idea if they want significant Republican support for an overhaul.
Government-run health care remains a far cry from a single-payer system and that is the minimal step one would expect from a health care bill crafted by Democrats. What would be the point of getting “significant Republican support” (meaning more than just what is needed to get 60 votes) if it will not even include a government-run insurance plan? (The same debate is currently taking place on EFCA, which Blanche Lincoln is increasingly looking like she might oppose while Mark Pryor is holding out hope that “a compromise bill that both business and labor could agree to should emerge.”)
Since requiring 60 votes is no longer enough to stop efficient reform, a new barrier of 70-80 votes is being erected! As if the support of 3/5th of the Senate would be too narrow a consensus, as if a 60-40 roll call would be a sign that the issue is deeply divisive, as if it should not matter that voters have chosen to send 59 Democrats to the U.S. Senate.