Dems Debate Changing Rules After Loss in Massachusetts

Leading Democrats are hinting at the possibility of changing the rules in light of the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts — possibly doing away with the long-protected right to filibuster. Rep. Barney Frank has called for the Senate to change its rules while Vice President Joe Biden has decried the use of the rule by Republicans.

Putting aside the value and history of the rule, the Democrats appear to be doing precisely what they accused the Republicans of doing when the GOP was in power: manipulating the rules in raw power plays in Congress. Many Democrats are seeking to push through legislation before Brown arrives despite that fact that he was elected primarily on the basis of his promise to oppose the health care bill. Sen. Jim Webb has cautioned against such a move, here. House dems have already indicated that they are not interested in the suggestion from some in the Administration that they simply adopt the Senate bill to avoid any vote with Brown, here.

By any measure, the GOP winning Ted Kennedy’s seat is a seismic event — particularly given the focus on opposing the national health care legislation. In light of the election, the use of interim Senator Paul Kirk to push through legislation would be unseemly when he was never elected and clearly does not represent the wishes of the people of Massachusetts.

Changing the rules when you cannot win elections (even the bluest seat in the bluest state) is equally unseemly. Yet, that is what Frank appears to be suggesting:

“It is time to shut it down. God didn’t create the filibuster, it’s part of the Senate rules. . . .We have a serious constitutional problem. There has been a de facto amendment of the U.S. Constitution in an anti-small-D democratic direction. . . . It is outrageous. It tends to be, in many cases, the senators from those smaller states that aggregate to get up to be the 40.” Less populous states, he argued, end up with a disproportionate amount of power.

Biden also seems to have such a change in mind when he said the following on Sunday:

“As long as I have served … I’ve never seen, as my uncle once said, the constitution stood on its head as they’ve done. This is the first time every single solitary decisions has required 60 senators,” Biden said. “No democracy has survived needing a supermajority.”

Biden did not seem bothered by the filibuster rules when he was in the Senate in the minority.

The use of the filibuster can be traced back as early as Roman senator Cato the Younger. Both the House and Senate once had the filibuster rule. The house got rid of it in 1842. In 1917, a rule allowing a vote of cloture was passed to limit filibuster, but it still required 60 votes. Its use increased in the 1960s as segregationists opposed civil rights legislation.

Celebrated in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the filibuster has often been heralded as forcing the Senate to reach compromises with large minority interests. If there are 41 members opposed to something like the national health care legislation, advocates insist that it is a good thing to force the majority to reach a reconciliation. The rule prevents a series of muscle votes by a slim majority.

Ironically, the health care bill may be an example of the value of the rule. Unlike the opposition to the civil rights legislation, there are credible concerns over the health care bill from both the left and the right. One could argue that such an important and historic bill should pass with at least 60 Senators or be rewritten to achieve greater consensus.

I have always shared some misgivings about the filibuster rule and Frank certainly has some good points to make. However, I do not like changing rules when it suits an election-challenged majority. This is simply not the time for such a debate – which will appear pathetically opportunistic and cynical. I think it would be a mistake to try to force through the legislation by slowing down the addition of Brown to the Senate or changing the rules to suit the majority. The insistence of the Democrats to pass something (or anything) labeled health care reform has led to a series of compromises and contradictions in the legislation. From the outset, the White House made so many compromises with the drug companies and other lobbies that it undermined its own credibility. Now, many liberals do not like it. Many conservatives hate it. Yet, the Democrats politically feel that they have to pass something at any cost.

I have to agree with Webb, who is being attacked by some commentators. If the Democrats can pass legislation with the new make-up of Congress, so be it. However, they should not tarnish their credibility or that of the final bill, by changing the rules or circumventing Brown.

I worked for Ted Kennedy in his 1980 presidential run and I am saddened that his seat was lost on this basis to the GOP. This was Kennedy’s legacy and the driving force of his final years in the Senate. However, the people of Massachusetts have a right to be heard on the question. Regardless of all of the effort to spin this loss, it was not simply a bad campaign (though Coakley was pretty weak in the campaign). This was a campaign that focused on national health care and the status quo in Washington.

I have long been a critic of this Administration and the Democrats in their utter abandonment of principle on issues like torture and civil liberties. While there are many good Democratic members who want to see a return to core values of the party, the party leadership has adopted, in my view, a pretty cynical approach to such issues. Instead, they have tried to be everything to everyone and have pleased no one but themselves. For that reason, many disillusioned liberals (including those who stayed home in the election) believe that they deserve this loss. Instead of changing the rules, how about looking at changing the Democratic position on the host of abandoned issues and values?

Maybe . . . just maybe . . . a few Democrats will now feel that they might as well give principle a chance since hypocrisy has not worked out for them. The Administration adopted many of the same positions as the Bush Administration on issues like privacy and failed to deliver on issues from gay rights to ending corruption in Congress. Democrats caved to lobbyists and engaged in openly corrupt practices that range from tax-funded vacations to obscene pork barrel politics. They has spent money with utter abandon and little concern for waste. After allowing lobbyists to cut up the current bill, there is no serious insurance reform, prescription drug reforms, or other needed elements.

Yet, the Democrats now just can’t understand why people are so unhappy with the Democrats. They have now lost Ted Kennedy’s seat and can only think of clever parliamentary tricks to avoid the result. The problem is much more fundamental and, if they do not understand that, they will not be in the majority for long.

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