At the end of a decade marked by a general failure of US leadership, 2009 saw the collapse of the Senate. Confronted with an array of difficult problems, a reactionary Senatorial minority put their personal political interests above those of the nation and blocked action by the progressive majority.
While polls don't differentiate between levels of support for the House of Representatives and the Senate,the long-term trend is down. At the beginning of the decade, fifty percent of Americans approved of the way Congress was handling its job; today the approval level is in the twenties. There's a widespread belief that Washington isn't performing. President Obama gets his share of the blame, but most observers fault Congress, the Senate in particular.
On January 3rd, the 111th US Congress convened with the Democrats in the majority in both the House and Senate. The House operates by majority rule, which has enabled Democrats to move critical legislation at a reasonable pace.
Unfortunately, the Senate doesn't honor majority rule. Senate convention permits any Senator to invoke a "procedural filibuster" to prevent an item from being discussed or voted upon. It takes a "cloture vote" of 60 Senators to move the process forward. In 1993, Senate Republican Minority Leader Bob Dole introduced the modern notion of the procedural filibuster when he persuaded Republican Senators to vote as a block against cloture.
In January, Democrats were tantalizing close to having a "guaranteed" 60 votes and during the first half of the year the remaining pieces seemed to fall into place. In April, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter changed Parties and, in July, Al Franken was declared the winner of the Minnesota Senate race. Since then Democrats have supposedly had a "filibuster-proof" majority with 58 Democratic Senators and two Independent Senators - Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and Vermont's Bernie Sanders - who usually vote with Democrats. However the magic number 60 proved elusive; while 40 Republicans steadfastly voted "no", various reactionary Senators at the edge of the Democratic majority joined Republicans to impede major legislation.
2009's first indication of how difficult it would be to move legislation through the Senate came with February's passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. At $787 Billion, the "stimulus package" was smaller than many economists thought was warranted. President Obama had to reduce the size of the package in order to gain enough votes for cloture - 60 to 38.
The latest polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly believe the economy "is the most important problem facing this country today," followed by health care, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the budget deficit. Because the Senate has failed to carry its weight, the 111th Congress has done little to address these concerns.
Besides the economy, most legislative attention has been focused on healthcare. On July 14th the House was poised to pass healthcare reform legislation, but delayed until the Senate acted. Four months later, the House passed the Affordable Health Care for America Act.
While there have been several competing healthcare reform bills in the Senate, most attention has been focused on the Healthy Future Act developed by the 23-member Senate Finance Committee chaired by Democratic Senator Max Baucus. Since last spring the bulk of work on healthcare has been conducted by the so-called Gang of Six: three Democratic Senators - Baucus, Bingaman, and Conrad - and three Republicans - Enzi, Grassley, and Snowe. The idea was to produce a bipartisan bill but after months of deliberation this effort failed; September 16th, the Baucus legislation moved out of committee with only Senator Snowe voting in the affirmative. Since that time the Senate effort has been bogged down trying to craft a bill that has the support of the 60 Senators needed to overcome a filibuster. (Independent Senator Joe Lieberman and Democratic Senator Ben Nelson have blocked the latest effort.)
While the Senate dithered about healthcare reform, America's other critical priorities were ignored. For example, on June 26th, the House passed the Clean Energy and Security Act that addresses the issues of energy and global climate change; this bill has languished in the Senate.
The Obama Administration is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They've staked a lot on healthcare reform and to come out of this lengthy process without anything is politically unacceptable. As a result, they'll settle for an inadequate bill and hope to repair the damage later.
Nonetheless, the failure of the Senate to address important legislation is terrible news for the Administration and the nation. It means that critical issues such as job creation, reform of the financial system, and deficit reduction will not be addressed until next year.
In 2010, the highest Democratic priority should be to dump the Senate cloture rule.
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Until the Senate adopts majority rule, it will continue to block the enactment of needed legislation and merit its role as the worst "person" in American politics.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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