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Why Can't Democrats Get a Backbone?

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Healthcare reform was one of the major issues discussed during the 2008 Democratic primaries and the presidential contest. In February,President Obama appeared before Congress and provided his outline for reform. Nonetheless progress has been painfully slow; the House just passed a bill and the Senate has just begun to debate the issue. Why can't Dems get their act together, pass the needed reform, and move on to other urgent concerns?

There are two problems with the pace on Capitol Hill. There's a domino affect; slowing down healthcare reform curtails other critical legislation like the Clean Energy Jobs and American Protection Act. And it makes Democrats appear to be a pack of wusses. Last week, Democratic Senator McCaskill said, "[About the possibility of passing climate-change legislation], I don't think anybody's excited about doing another really, really big thing that's really, really hard that makes everybody mad."

Even though they control Congress, Democrats whine it's not possible to rapidly move healthcare reform - or any significant legislation - because of monolithic Republican opposition and arcane Senate rules.

After Obama became President, Republicans settled on a simple political strategy: oppose every domestic policy he initiated. In July, Republican Senator Jim DeMint observed: "If we're able to stop Obama on this [health care], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." Republicans became the Party of No, waging a perpetual political campaign to discredit Obama and congressional Democrats, in order to score gains in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

The GOP strategy has unified their base, although nationwide the number of voters identifying as Republicans has diminished to 22 percent. Republicans have slowed down the course of the Obama domestic agenda and Obama's support among Independents has diminished.

Two factors facilitate this slash-and-burn strategy. First, Republicans have the whole-hearted support of the Fox News Network as well as hate-radio-hosts like Rush Limbaugh. Second, the GOP became a regional Party. More than at any time in recent memory, Republicans are concentrated in the South and Great Plains. (35 percent of the Republican House delegation comes from the states of the Confederacy.) Thus, Republican leaders of the House and Senate have safe seats and come from areas that overwhelmingly favor their point of view.

The bottom line is that for purely political reasons, forty percent of the members of Congress aren't interested in passing significant social legislation. Nonetheless, since Democrats control sixty percent of the votes in both the House and Senate, Dems should be able to move the Obama agenda without any help from Republicans. That's what's happened in the House, where Dems have rolled over the obdurate GOP reps.

However, the House and Senate operate by different rules. Senate convention permits any Senator to invoke a "procedural filibuster" to prevent any item from being discussed or voted upon. It takes a "cloture vote" of 60 Senators to move the process forward.

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Historically, the Senate process has taken three steps to get to where it is today. In 1917, the Senate decided that a filibuster could be stopped by a cloture vote of two-thirds of those voting. In 1975, Senate Rule 22 was amended to reduce the cloture threshold from 67 Senators to 60. Filibusters and cloture votes happened relatively few times during each Senate Session.

In 1993, Senate Republican Minority Leader Bob Dole introduced the modern notion of the "procedural filibuster" to frustrate the Clinton Administration. Dole persuaded Republican Senators to vote as a block against cloture. As a result of Dole's action, cloture votes have dramatically increased; there were 112 in the last Senate session. The pace of accomplishment slowed accordingly.

Therefore, while it appears that Democrats have the sixty votes necessary for a successful cloture vote on any issue, one of those votes belongs to capricious Senator Joe Lieberman, who sides with Republicans on many issues. Furthermore, since the Democrats are a national Party there are several Democratic Senators who come from states in Republican territory - Landrieu in Louisiana, Lincoln in Arkansas, and Nelson in Nebraska - who also occasionally side with the GOP. Therefore any cloture vote is "really, really hard."

The obvious answer would be to change Senate Rule 22 to reduce the cloture threshold to 51 Senators. The problem is that Senate Rule 22 states that for "a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules... the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting." However, the Constitution says the Senate sets its own rules and the process followed in 1975 indicates a simple majority can modify Senate Rule 22.

Before the end of the year, the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats need to wake up to the fact that the negative Republican strategy is succeeding. The Obama change express has nearly ground to a halt. Many American believe Democrats aren't getting the job done; that they're afraid to tackle jobs that are "really, really hard."

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Democrats have to find a backbone, change Senate Rule 22, reinstate majority rule, and quicken the pace of legislative accomplishment.


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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Look at it as a shellgame without a pea instead of... by Otay on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 10:27:01 AM
"That's what's happened in the House, where Dems h... by Bia Winter on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 11:02:55 AM
I agree it is nothing but a show. Corporations own... by Sleeper on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 11:06:18 AM
This article presumes that the Democrats actually ... by Jeffrey Rock on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 11:09:59 AM
Yes, and I used to think Claire McCaskill was one ... by Bia Winter on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 2:00:57 PM
Both parties are so sold out to the Lobby Powers n... by Michael Dewey on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 11:27:00 AM
Because their corporate pay masters won't let them... by Cindy Sheehan on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 11:40:27 AM
But you need to focus on a simple issue and not tr... by BFalcon on Sunday, Nov 29, 2009 at 11:46:57 AM
Unfortunately, the Dems have demonstrated that the... by steve scheetz on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 12:48:26 PM
I have the advantage of having a congressman who i... by Joe Walsh on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 1:26:05 PM
...maybe its a matter of the "root" of the problem... by Terry Adcock on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 1:29:19 PM
Congress has already abdicated its responsibilitie... by Bia Winter on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 2:13:04 PM
The health care system is too complex. Congress is... by Bernard on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 2:41:30 PM
The Democrats, like the Republicans, are just play... by Richard Welker on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 5:40:17 PM
Good for Terry.More citizens should aim for what i... by Jason Paz on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 7:28:37 PM
...have "suggested" passage too. Sen. Feingold ha... by Terry Adcock on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 2:47:53 PM
Candidates should submit to full disclosure made p... by Jason Paz on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 5:45:07 PM not a current bill before Congress. My recom... by Terry Adcock on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 8:11:53 PM
your illusionary thoughts of "Why." Perhaps all t... by shadow dancer on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 7:56:20 PM
Republicans = Reptiles (cold blooded and their onl... by 911TRUTH on Friday, Nov 27, 2009 at 11:53:44 PM
Is for the Majority Leaders and the President to g... by Patty Cipponeri on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 12:05:39 AM
I am SO heartened by the responses here. I was get... by Techknowledgie on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 1:28:46 AM
If you really think the Democrats in Congress are ... by Perry Logan on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 6:18:51 AM
Corporate Health Insurance do not want health care... by Philip Pease on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 9:04:53 AM
...Instead of the Corporatists' parties, let's hav... by Bia Winter on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 9:22:57 AM
Bia, in a sane world with the possibility of G,F,D... by Otay on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 10:25:18 AM
...on the legal and procedural obstacles set up in... by Jill Herendeen on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 12:02:39 PM
you said, "I don't know what the answer is. I don'... by Otay on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 11:04:15 AM
Regarding Lieberman, you can forget him ever helpi... by Tom Wieliczka on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 2:05:05 PM
Now see, Tom, that's EXACTLY what I'm talking abou... by Techknowledgie on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 7:20:31 PM
It's the media "stupids"!! What could the anti-mid... by Richard Lee on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 6:20:00 PM
And few are right. First, they do not have the rig... by BFalcon on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 10:58:17 PM
Single-payer, universal health care would cost a L... by Jill Herendeen on Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009 at 9:35:03 PM
First, no major industrialized country spends half... by BFalcon on Saturday, Dec 5, 2009 at 9:13:45 AM
Democratsmay not have any Engineers and Technologi... by KMGuru on Saturday, Nov 28, 2009 at 11:28:00 PM
Why don't the Democrats have a backbone? The Cause... by Pulladigm on Sunday, Nov 29, 2009 at 10:19:00 AM
The problem is the majority of them are not democr... by Deborah Poage on Sunday, Nov 29, 2009 at 12:03:35 PM
Without this vote system we will only elect our op... by Richard Lee on Sunday, Nov 29, 2009 at 6:38:18 PM
Without this vote system we will only elect our op... by Richard Lee on Sunday, Nov 29, 2009 at 6:38:20 PM
Democrats are not spineless. They are merely enact... by David Schwab on Monday, Nov 30, 2009 at 12:54:09 PM