Let them filibuster

Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that a public option, which many analysts have called the linchpin of a successful solution to our growing health care crisis, will be included in the insurance reform bill that passes out of the Senate.

This represents a major victory for proponents of a fairer and more competitive national health care infrastructure, one that will break the health insurance monopoly, promote small business and enterpreneurship, and make sure that the 1/6 of the country without health insurance finally has access to the care those workers and families can afford. It is both the rational and the humanitarian approach, and this nation has always flourished when both of those impulses are considered.

However, those within the Democratic caucus who still live in fear of knee-jerk repudiation by their constitutents, choosing to quail in the face of an insurer-financed onslaught rather than seizing the initiative to champion an idea whose time has come, have raised the specter of a Republican filibuster as a reason not to proceed with the measure. Even though the new approach will reportedly enable states to opt out of the plan – which will force state legislatures to explain why their constituents should not have common-sense consumer protections and a backup plan to medical bill-precipitated bankruptcy, and provide political cover for those states’ national representatives – still there is consternation on the Democratic side of the aisle. Somehow, because of an adherence to the idea that the filibuster of a bill is equivalent to its defeat, one can almost hear the squeaks of Democratic feet dragging echo through the chambers of the Capitol.

Not only would a filibuster be survivable, it might be advantageous to the larger goals of the Obama administration and Democratic legislators as a body. Here are the reasons why a Republican filibuster is not only acceptable, but welcome:

  1. The American people want a public option

Poll after poll after poll, conducted by a number of reputable organizations periodically over the last month, show that a majority of Americans want the option to obtain health insurance throught the federal government. The majorities are unfailingly outside the margin of error, and no differences in the way the question is presented substantively alter the results.

At the nadir of its popularity in August, when the insurance companies financed and mobilized Tea Baggers to denounce the public option as vocally and forcefully as possible, the national support for a government health insurance alternative dropped only one or two points below 50 percent, and even then a plurality of the Republic’s citizens remained in favor. Since then, support for the public option has rebounded into pure majority territory, and this trend has only picked up in recent weeks.

At the very least, the Republican Party needs to recognize that while individual senators may be justifiably beholden to vote with their (mostly Southern) constituencies that reject the basic ideological underpinning of the public option, as a national entity the GOP is hurting its chances of recovering a meaningful position in American political life by stonewalling, as opposed to negotiating in good faith.

To show how out-of-touch Republican leadership has become – to the detriment, incidentally, of the two-party systen that has served this nation well throughout the past 200 years – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had this to say:

“After months of hearing that Americans don’t want government-run health care, Democrat leaders in Washington have made their decision. They’re going to include it in their health care bill, whether Americans want it or not.”   

Of course, those “Democrat” leaders were hearing that Americans don’t want government-run health care from Americans who don’t want government-run health care. They, according to the most recent polls, represent at the most 46 percent of the population, and at the least little more than 1/3. The rest of us, who either cannot afford to see a doctor or who pay far more to do so than in any other civilized nation on the planet, are in favor. We are the majority.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
This will be the comparison if the GOP filibusters. Not favorable to them.

    2.   Republicans have no alternatives

“The Party of No,” as the GOP has been labeled by the majority, is a moniker only supported by any attempt to filibuster health insurance reform legislation.

After overcoming the initial novelty of seeing rich old men sweat and strain their ways through endless hours of oratory, the American people will quickly sour on the spectacle, unless they hear something different and engaging.

Sadly, the Republican Party has placed all of its politcal eggs in one basket, and that basket is obstructionism, which offers neither difference nor engagement. It would be better for the nation if this were not the case, but unfortunately all organized Republican efforts to date have focused on defeating the majority’s agenda, rather than improving it.  This course of action certainly fails to serve the overall needs of Americans, but more importantly for the GOP, it leaves them without a foundation to build from when the appropriate opportunity comes around.

The very forum for a filibuster, with all of the attendant tradition and gravitas, would be the floor of the Senate, where the guiding principles of this Republic have been so well articulated, and some of its most important accomplishments achieved. If one is to utilize this venue for a particular end, on national television and at a crucial juncture in the life of this nation, one had better “come correct” as the kids say, packing more than recriminations, but actual solutions.

If it comes down to a filibuster, it is entirely possible the GOP will show up prepared. As it stands now though, nothing but a rehash of the same old arguments, which have entirely failed to persuade the American public, will be offered. Which leads us to the next point.

    3.   Americans are tired of obstructionism

The life of the Senate does not hinge on great speeches or roll call votes. All that we watch on television is only attendant to and the result of the unseen work: the long hours in committee rooms, deals brokered in the back corners of fashionable Georgetown eateries, at sit-downs between two or three senators at a time, and in endless consultations with staff and strategists, where individual members weigh (quite often genuinely) the needs of the nation versus the needs of the men and women who elected them.

Especially in these crucial times, where the average American’s trust in government has been gravely eroded and where the patience of the citizenry is at record lows, legislative diligence is demanded of all members of Congress. Lack of action on key fronts is conspicuous these days, and a filibuster does not send the right message at all. It would give the appearance that Republican senators were not conducting the usual business of their offices. This country’s tolerance for even a hint of that type of inaction is virtually nonexistent. 

Despite being Democrats, the majority cannot fail to take advantage of the massive distraction that a filibuster would represent to the GOP. Strategy sessions on filibuster messaging would, for Republican senators, take the place of committee hearings; the struggle for publicity and power amongst the filibustering senators would sow seeds of disharmony that could yield a bitter harvest for months or years to come within the already-beleaguered party. Every passing hour, or day, would increase the odds that one of the 40 in the GOP caucus would go disastrously off-message, or press to achieve a separate peace with the majority. 

    4.    It’s easier to vote for cloture than to vote for the public option

This is the crucial part of the equation any Republican leaders must consider before embarking on a filibuster.

To support a filibuster indefinitely, all that needs to happen is for fewer than 60 senators to vote for cloture – that is, to end debate and move to a vote on the bill being considered. At this time, there are only 99 senators, with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat currently vacant. This leaves Democrats in control of 59 seats – one shy of a filibuster-proof majority.

Even if the Democrats had their full 60, there are enough conservative Democrats in the Senate, such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kent Conrad, who oppose a public option as it stands (or support the idea but will find a reason not to vote for it) who might not be counted on to get to 60. If any one of these Democrats even abstained from a cloture vote (to end debate and move to a vote), the requisite 60 votes would not be there and the debate would continue.

However, even if the filibuster proceeded initially, it would not be long before the stray Democratic sheep would return to the flock. Once gaining the headlines they wanted for refusing to cut off debate, they could then demand certain concessions of the party on behalf of their states or to ease their political consciences. Either way, they could vote “no” on the final bill even if allowing it to come to a vote. They may take a temporary hit, but with enough cover that it would be worth their while.

That would get the Democrats to 59.

If the Democrats have any hope of getting to 60, it likely comes from one state: Maine. The moderate Republican senators from that great state, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are acutely aware that they dwell in a region where the Republican Party is all but extinct, and would like to avoid the fate of former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who opposed a number of Bush policies but got the boot in 2006 right along with many of those Republicans who had supported them (though Chafee may be on the comeback trail). If either of them voted for cloture, the Democrats would have the requisite 60 votes needed to break the filibuster. Not only that, but they would have further distanced the few remaining moderates in the GOP away from the leadership, while creating some semblance of solidarity among Democrats.

And then, they would pass landmark legislation.

All told, it is unlikely a filibuster will occur. There really haven’t been that many lately, because the threat has always been sufficient to achieve what the filibuster would have anyway.

However, it has become so engrained in the modern political brain that this is the case that people have forgotten other reasons why they are so rare. It requires that the speaker have right on his or her side. It requires the belief that so grave a disservice to the nation is about to be perpetrated that only a continuous stream of talk, jamming up the works of the world’s most deliberative body, focusing all eyes on the august chamber specifically to see it at a standstill, will save the Republic.  

Certainly there are some Republicans who are genuine in their belief that this actually is the case when it comes to the public option. That is fine, and in truth it is not hard to see their position, though this publication disagrees with it. If that is their honest opinion, and they are willing to shut down a branch of government to tell the majority of the American people that they are wrong, then let them do it. Let them filibuster.

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