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.

161 thoughts on “Dems Debate Changing Rules After Loss in Massachusetts”

  1. “Democrats stayed home.”

    Now, I’m sure there is an element of truth to this, but Massachusetts is not Ohio and a few Democrats staying at home is not going to hand the election over to the Republicans. In fact even if 50% of Democrats stay at home, and every last Republican turned out, the Democrats would still have 50% more voters than the Republicans.

    No matter how you slice it, the Democrats had a **commanding** advantage at the polls. (You would have to have your head pretty deep in the sand not to concede this.) Which means that no matter how you slice it, the Democrats got their butts kicked by independents. This is consistent with what we see all across the country–independents oppose the Democrats (I won’t say support the GOP because I don’t think that is accurate) by anywhere from a 2-1 to 3-1 margin.

  2. Elaine M

    “Am I correcting in assuming that you believe that only a minority of Americans think we need healthcare reform in this country?”

    I’m sure a majority supports reform but it comes down to who is doing it and what are their proposals?

    And what kind of reform do we expect from a bunch of lawyers?

  3. Byron

    “I comment once in awhile on another blog and I made a statement about how I thought Christians were ok, I barely made it out with my head intact.”

    Kind of like domestic disputes on COPS.

  4. Thanks, lottakatz. I should have added the Afghanistan nation-building fiasco, because I believe that has discouraged many Democrats and independents as well.

  5. Mike A, THANK YOU for taking the time and effort to make a more comprehensive list. The thing being glossed over by the Dem’s and MSM is that there is more than one ‘failure’ and any one of them can be embraced by a special interest voting bloc or group as a reason to vote the way they vote, or refuse to go to the polls to vote. I’m focused on health care right now because that debate is still on-going but any other topic you touch upon will have an influence on my voting also if there were a special election in my State. The reason Brown won is a mosaic of reasons based on which voting bloc you talk to.

  6. Byron,

    Missed your response, and misread your original post. I apologize. Although I still think you’re tougher on the addict than the pusher.

    Also, I can’t speak for anyone else you mentioned, but life gets in the way of the internet sometimes.


    Actually Byron, FFLEO, and a few other less frequent visitors often disagree with the general consensus here, and are generally treated well. Perhaps you should try and find the difference between them and the posts those that get labeled as trolls.

  7. VERY WELL SAID, Mr. Appleton, very fair and balanced. I know I come across as one way but when you read what you just wrote, it gives me pause to say, you know that guy is right.

  8. Swarthmore mom,

    I should have added:

    I have always been against the bailouts.

    We entered the Iraq war under false pretenses, just like we did in Vietnam under Johnson. I think it should be investigated (not in the media, or the court of public opinion, but by open Senate investigation), and if it is proven that Bush knew we were entering under false pretenses, he should be tried for treason.

    I don’t have so much of a problem with us being in Afghanistan. I think a preemptive disruption of non-state organizations is the only way to protect the citizens of the U.S.

  9. “Since the country is already bankrupt from Bush’s two wars and the bank bailouts, don’t the US citizens deserve healthcare?”

    Bush being an idiot is not an argument for healthcare. Stop making that argument.

    We are strapped for a number of reasons. Bushes two wars (that Obama promised to withdraw us from) is a part of it. The Great Stimulus Swindle was another. However, the looming Social Security and Medicare crises are much bigger contributors.

  10. You can add to the above that the candidate seemed aloof, went on vacation, made mistakes,and took the election for granted.

  11. “Since the country is already bankrupt from Bush’s two wars and the bank bailouts, don’t the US citizens deserve healthcare? I would rather my tax dollars go to pay to for healthcare for our citizens than bombs and bank bonuses.”

    Swarthmore mom,

    No. That’s like telling me you’re getting ready to file bankruptcy because you made some poor purchases, and asking if I think you should put some home improvement purchases on your credit card just before you file. That would be unethical.

    The problem with that sort of logic, is that it does not take into consideration anything but the objective. It’s all part and parcel of the “I want it now mentality”, that America currently suffers from.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think your objective is honorable. I just think you need to save up the money before you buy it.

  12. Since it will be awhile before all of the numbers from the Massachusetts election can be parsed and analyzed, it is probably premature to offer definitive opinions regarding the reasons for the outcome, which means, of course, that virtually everyone has offered a definitive opinion regarding the reasons for the outcome. So, I’ll plunge right in.

    The prevailing view I have read and heard is that the voters reacted to a Democratic administration that is moving too far and too fast to the left. Sen. McConnell has already put Democrats on notice that they’ll have to deal with him in the future. And timid Democrats like Evan Bayh counsel moderation of the legislative agenda. My response: hogwash.

    The Massachusetts seat was lost to a Republican for the first time in over fifty years not due to the brilliance of Mr. Brown or his tea party allies. It was lost due to Democratic timidity and an absence of leadership in the White House. Voters recognize weakness when they see it, and the inability or unwillingness of Pres. Obama to move his legislative agenda in spite of commanding majorities in the House and Senate cannot be blamed on recalcitrant, naysaying Republicans. The piece of garbage now posing as health care reform is Exhibit “A.” Of course it’s not popular. It’s not popular becaus it doesn’t address in an effective manner the stated goals of the legislation, increased accessibility and cost control, unless mandating that people purchase products from an industry already swollen with money and power and arrogance can be properly viewed as increasing accessibility. It’s not popular because any honest person resents the purchase of Blue Dog votes by promising special treatment of one state at the expense of the remaining forty-nine. It’s not pupular because we know the elimination of the pre-existing condition exclusion without competition will only lead to a substantial increase in premiums, a portion of which will be subsidized with tax dollars. It’s not popular because anyone over the age of ten knows that the argument that we need to enact the present version and amend it later means that the bill isn’t very good and that we won’t make it better later. And it’s not popular because people know that the pharmaceutical industry was once again given a pass behind closed doors while the rest of us have to dig deeper in our own pockets. It’s not popular not because it represents “socialism” or “communism” or the institution of “death panels” or the government “takeover” of the health insurance industry, but because it isn’t remotely what was promised. And if this is the best the Democrats can come up with after a year and control of Congress, what kind of confidence can we place in them?

    But health care reform is only the most visible portion of the iceberg. The enthusiasm and energy among new and old voters (including me) during Pres. Obama’s campaign have been gradually sapped through repeated and futile efforts at bipartisanship (most of us realize that when we run into a wall, it hurts, and we need to find an alternate route), persistent backpedaling on principles, unnecessary compromise and outright capitulation to the banking and financial industries.

    It was to be a government of transparency, but the only transparency so far comes from the new body scanning equipment currently being installed in airports.

    It was to be a government committed to the rule of law, but the Justice Department continues to cover up war crimes (wait until next month’s edition of “Harper’s” hits the stands) and investigates nothing. It files briefs in support of Bush security and secrecy policies and flip-flops on releasing the Gitmo photographs. Extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention without charges remain standard operating procedure. And, to my knowledge, there are no DOJ investigations pending on any matter relating to the war in Iraq.

    It was to be a government not run by lobbyists. That rule has been honored more in the breach. Insiders dictate policy and put together deals. Financial regulation is expected to come from individuals who are being asked to regulate their friends and former colleagues, always a bad idea. A year after the fact, the administration still refuses to account for the handling of the TARP program, banks aren’t lending money and it’s business as usual on Wall Street. I’m not holding my breath.

    It was to be a government committed to equal rights for gays, but that goal has been deferred more times than Dick Cheney’s draft status. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has not been abrogated; it’s merely been expanded to preclude inquiries into other spheres of government.

    Those who worked hardest and with the greatest excitement for the election of the President have been complaining for months about the administration’s priorities and commitments, and its failure to act with the boldness of the president’s campaign speeches. In each instance, progressives have been told, sometimes unceremoniously, to shut up by the likes of Rahm Emanuel, as though he were dealing with some whining Chicago alderman. In the face of all of this, enthusiasm has waned, excitement has been dulled and determination has been replaced by disillusion. This president hasn’t moved too far to the left. He hasn’t moved to the left at all. Instead he has marched steadily toward that muddled, murky, mushy middle where no one is happy and nothing is accomplished. My guess is that once the data has been extracted, the answer to Massachusetts will be clear. Democrats stayed home.

  13. Duh Since the country is already bankrupt from Bush’s two wars and the bank bailouts, don’t the US citizens deserve healthcare? I would rather my tax dollars go to pay to for healthcare for our citizens than bombs and bank bonuses.

  14. I cannot concede to healthcare reform until we first get rid of the national debt. Period. End of story.

    Is it really considered to be alright if we bankrupt the country to save a few from bankruptcy?

    And when does it stop? Do we have a nationalized food supply next? Nationalized energy?

    I’d like to buy a new car. I’d like on that is under full warranty, and that would get better fuel economy. Why don’t I buy one right now? Because it would not be a financially smart decision.

    Taxes will need to be raised in order to pay for our current debt. I see no way out of doing so. And when someone running for public office tells the public that they will take the taxes from the minority, and give it to the voters in the majority, it needs to be called exactly what it is. Bribery.

  15. I agree that polls are not all that reliable, but its the best information we have. And the polls have been consistently against the bills pending in Congress since last summer. To the extent that some polls might be skewed one way of the other, you would expect that they would even out over the long run.

    The price tag, according to the CBO > $1 Trillion. Obama even concedes that this is “real money.”

  16. Wayne–

    I always like to see the way the questions in opinion polls are worded. I’m for healthcare reform–but I don’t like the Senate bill as it stands now. The Senate bill is different from the House bill–which I think is better. I would like to see a public option.

    It is sometimes difficult to get a true picture of where people stand on certain issues. Sometimes the questions in the polls are unclear. Sometimes a question is worded in a certain way in hopes of getting a particular response. In addition, a poll gives you a picture of people’s opinions at one specific point in time. We’re not often provided with much information about the people who were polled and where they live. Numbers is numbers. Polls is polls. I’m a skeptic.

    What price tag are you talking about? Can you be more specific?

    There are millions of Americans who can’t afford health insurance. They don’t have primary care physicians. They sometimes use emergency rooms when they have medical problems. That’s cost effective for hospitals? In the end, those of us with healthcare insurance end up paying higher premiums to cover such costs. Don’t you think we should be able to negotiate lower prices for pharmaceuticals? There are so many things wrong with healthcare coverage in the US today. There are millions of Americans who have no health insurance…and so many who go bankrupt because of that fact. I have to wonder about those people in the US who don’t think we need some kind of reform.

  17. OFF TOPIC and Unrelated in Any way. Copied from another Blawg.

    You have to be old enough to remember Abbott and Costello, and too old to REALLY understand computers, to fully appreciate this.

    If Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were alive today, their
    famous sketch, ‘Who’s on First?’ might have
    turned out something like this:


    ABBOTT: Super Duper computer store. Can I help you?

    COSTELLO : Thanks. I’m setting up an office in my den
    and I’m thinking about buying a computer.

    ABBOTT : Mac?

    COSTELLO : No, the name’s Lou .

    ABBOTT : Your computer?

    COSTELLO : I don’t own a computer. I want to buy one.

    ABBOTT : Mac?

    COSTELLO: I told you, my name’s Lou .

    ABBOTT : What about Windows?

    COSTELLO : Why? Will it get stuffy in here?

    ABBOTT : Do you want a computer with Windows?

    COSTELLO : I don’t know. What will I see when I look at
    the windows?

    ABBOTT : Wallpaper.

    COSTELLO : Never mind the windows. I need a computer and

    ABBOTT : Software for Windows?

    COSTELLO : No. On the computer! I need something I can use
    to write proposals, track expenses and run my business. What do you have?

    ABBOTT : Office.

    COSTELLO: Yeah, for my office. Can you recommend anything?

    ABBOTT : I just did.

    COSTELLO : You just did what?

    ABBOTT : Recommend something.

    COSTELLO : You recommended something ?

    ABBOTT : Yes.

    COSTELLO : For my office?

    ABBOTT : Yes.

    COSTELLO : OK, what did you recommend for my office?

    ABBOTT : Office.

    COSTELLO : Yes, for my office!

    ABBOTT : I recommend Office with Windows.

    COSTELLO : I already have an office with windows! OK,
    let’s just say I’m sitting at my computer and I want
    to type a proposal. What do I need?

    ABBOTT : Word..

    COSTELLO : What word?

    ABBOTT : Word in Office.

    COSTELLO : The only word in office is office..

    ABBOTT : The Word in Office for Windows.

    COSTELLO : Which word in office for windows?

    ABBOTT : The Word you get when you click the blue ‘W’.

    COSTELLO : I’m going to click your blue ‘w’ if
    you don’t start with some straight answers. What about
    financial bookkeeping? You have anything I can track my
    money with?

    ABBOTT: Money.

    COSTELLO : That’s right. What do you have?

    ABBOTT : Money.

    COSTELLO : I need money to track my money?

    ABBOTT : It comes bundled with your computer.

    COSTELLO : What’s bundled with my computer?

    ABBOTT : Money.

    COSTELLO : Money comes with my computer?

    ABBOTT : Yes… No extra charge.

    COSTELLO : I get a bundle of money with my computer? How much?

    ABBOTT : One copy.

    COSTELLO : Isn’t it illegal to copy money?

    ABBOTT : Microsoft gave us a license to copy Money.

    COSTELLO : They can give you a license to copy money?

    ABBOTT : Why not? THEY OWN IT!

    (A few days later)

    ABBOTT : Super Duper computer store. Can I help you?

    COSTELLO : How do I turn my computer off?

    ABBOTT : Click on ‘START’………….

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