As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Everyone's Leaving Their Options Open

Lynn Woolsey let Rahm Emanuel have it yesterday over his comments on a trigger for the public option. I get the sense that Rahm still craves capitulating to the insurance companies on this one, but he's being invited to recognize the contours of the debate, and the fact that there aren't enough votes for a health care bill without a public insurance option.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reassured House Democrats on Tuesday night that President Barack Obama strongly backs a government-run health insurance plan, seeking to quell a firestorm among liberals upset at Emanuel’s comments in the Wall Street Journal that suggested such a plan could be delayed.

Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) warned Emanuel that he would lose the caucus’ votes if the White House compromised on the issue and included a “trigger” that could delay a public insurance plan indefinitely. The trigger idea is backed by conservative Democrats but is anathema to liberals.

“We have compromised enough, and we are not going to compromise on any kind of trigger game,” Woolsey said she told Emanuel. “People clapped all over the place. We mean it, and not just progressives.”

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he was reassured by Emanuel. “He doesn’t stand by that trigger,” Waxman said. “He said the president and his administration and he are for a public plan as one of the options.”

Of course, Emanuel stands by the public plan as "one of the options." They have no line in the sand drawn on that, and everything's open to negotiation. Still, if the Progressive Block holds, even a weasel like Emanuel can figure out the math. They cannot take progressive votes on this for granted, and that's a good message to push.

The other message getting pushed over in the Senate by Harry Reid and the leadership is a variation on Bernie Sanders' suggestion, that all Democrats in the caucus should agree not to join Republican filibusters as a matter of course and out of respect for the majority's agenda. The most conservative Democrats don't agree, incidentally.


However, she flatly refused to rule out filibustering any bill, including health care and climate change legislation. “I’m going to keep an open mind, but I am not committing to any procedural straitjackets one way or another,” she said.


“I’m not a closed mind on cloture, but if it’s an abuse of procedure, if it’s somebody trying to put a poison pill into a bill, or if it’s something that would be pre-emptive of Nebraska law, or something that rises to extraordinary circumstances, then I’ve always reserved the right to vote against cloture,” Nelson said.

Reid's next step should be to remind his colleagues of the tools available to him as Majority Leader. Namely - not approving any bills of individual Senators for floor votes; throwing members off of prized committees in the next session; refusing to contribute to members' re-election campaigns through the DSCC; not respecting members' holds on legislation; using manager's amendments to simply rewrite bills coming out of members' committees; and on and on. These were some of the tools of persuasion used in the 1950s and 1960s, under far more preocedural hurdles, to pass progressive legislation:

I recently read a book called "The Liberal Hour" about the Great Society. And the authors there made the point that one of the important underlying factors to Johnson's ability to move Civil Rights legislation and Medicare and Medicaid was a change House Speaker Sam Rayburn made to the Rules Committee when John F. Kennedy was president. He expanded it to give it a more liberal majority. And there have been a couple moments like this where legislative change is preceded by procedural change.

One of the things that brings up is that it's interesting how central the filibuster has become to not only how the Senate operates, but also how the House operates, as much of the legislating is done in recognition that it'll have to pass the Senate. As political scientists will tell you, of course, this centrality of the filibuster is actually a relatively recent innovation. So I'm curious how much you think it's actually possible to achieve these changes under the current system. Even with a popular new president and a large House majority and 60 Democrats in the Senate, it seems unlikely we'll actually solve these underlying problems. We might get legislation. But it's not likely to avert the existence-level fiscal threat from health-care reform or the existence level environmental threat from climate change. But if not now, then when? And if Congress can't respond to challenges of that magnitude, doesn't it suggest that something is quite wrong?

I think we need to be open-minded and think about the possibility in changes of process as well as policies. We shouldn't be so burdened by the past that we can't face the future. The seniority system in the House was traditionally dictated by members who didn't like the speaker having so much power over the committees. But when I came to Congress, if you were the senior member, you became chairman no matter how competent you were, no matter how in sync you were with the majority caucus. That was enormously advantageous for many of the Dixiecrats who remained Democrat for that reason, to take advantage of the seniority, but who aligned themselves on policy with the Republicans, and created a situation where even when Democrats had large margins, there was this sort of Southern Democrat-Republican coalition that ruled.

The fight by Sam Rayburn to allow the Rules Committee to be controlled by the leadership was an enormous and brutal fight, but a necessary one. The chairman before that time was Judge Smith from Virginia, who wouldn't let civil rights legislation go to the House floor because he was a segregationist himself. That meant that even when the Judiciary Committee proposed a bill for civil rights, members of the House couldn't vote on it.

There are anti-democratic rules that need to be changed. In some ways, the filibuster is an issue we might want to look at more closely. It is a two-edged sword. But I come from California, where to pass a budget you need a two-thirds vote. And they've been unable to pass a budget for years now able to deal with the fiscal problems. And it has thrown the state into chaos because they can't get the two-thirds vote.

The filibuster used to be a two-thirds requirement, and it wasn't until 1975 that they changed it to 60 votes. Well, that was a move in the right direction. For sure.

This speaks more to the ability to recognize the ability for procedural change, but the other story of the 1950s and 1960s was how the Master of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, used everything at his disposal to break 2/3 majorities, unlock the strangehold from Dixiecrats over major committees, and generally pass his agenda, as Majority Leader and then as President. Political leaders have more power than most people think they realize today. So while Mary Landrieu and Rahm Emanuel and Ben Nelson and Max Baucus think they can have their way in the Senate, it's simply untrue. This begs the question as to whether the leadership WANTS to hold their conservative flank accountable. It's the question of what their priorities are.

...Evan Bayh, too.

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