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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.

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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.

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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.

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.


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

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