Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who Yields Time?

I very much like Ezra Klein's point earlier today about Republican strategy in the Senate:
Republicans use the filibuster process to stretch the votes on non-controversial legislation -- like, say, next week's extension of jobless benefits -- so they take many days rather than a couple of hours, and they use objections to unanimous consent as a way to slow the Senate's general work. The result has been to turn Senate floor time into a precious, and worryingly limited, commodity, which suits the Republicans just fine as less floor time means fewer Democratic accomplishments. 
See also Kevin Drum's good comments here.

Now, as regular readers can attest, I've mostly defended Harry Reid over the last year.  To me, a lot of complaints about Reid (and Obama, and for that matter Mitch McConnell -- that is, about pols in general) overlook the real constraints and limits that they are acting within.  Often, Reid gets criticized for something which has nothing to do with Democratic strategy, but is just a limitation of not having the votes.  Other times, he gets criticized for something (such as keeping Joe Lieberman as a committee chair) which is a means to a much more important end (such as getting cloture on health care reform). 


Ezra Klein is correct that floor time is "precious and limited."  Yes, it is.  Harry Reid and the Democrats, however, haven't come anywhere close to exhausting that particular resource so far.  Reid isn't, with only one or two exceptions, keeping the Senate in on weekends.  He isn't, again with some exceptions, keeping the Senate in late into the night.  He isn't reducing or canceling recesses. 

This is a mistake.  If floor time is what's limiting the ability of Democrats to take advantage of their best opportunity in a generation -- and I think that's correct -- then the Democrats simply have to maximize floor time.  Reid should, in my view, put everyone on notice right now: the Democrats were elected and given large majorities, and if it means no Memorial Day, no 4th of July, no August recess, so be it.  Yes, it might (although it probably won't) turn out that a few more hours of in-person campaigning would have made all the difference to Barbara Boxer or Michael Bennet or...hmmm, looks as if the only other endangered Dem incumbents are Blanche Lincoln and Harry Reid himself.  Far better to lose those races then to let the clock run out on judicial nominees, executive branch nominees, and all the things major and minor that the House has passed that the Senate hasn't found time for.

Now, of course, many of those blocked measures are blocked because Reid doesn't have the votes.  Fair enough.  He shouldn't be blamed for that.  He and the Democrats can be blamed for anything that dies for lack of floor time if they're leaving hours and hours on the table.  For Democrats who worked hard to put Reid and his 58 colleagues in place along with a large majority in the House and Barack Obama in the White House, it's inexcusable.

Oh, and by the way, I'm certainly not a recess-basher.  This isn't about Congress not working hard enough.   Pols work a lot harder than they are given credit for, and a lot of what they very legitimately do doesn't take place on the House and Senate floors.  Normally, I'd be happy to defend the normal Senate schedule. Republican obstruction during this Congress, however, is not normal at all, and Reid needs to be more creative than he has been to date to react to it. 


  1. ...looks as if the only other endangered Dem incumbents are Blanche Lincoln and Harry Reid himself. Far better to lose those races then to let the clock run out...

    I think you just answered your question right there. Reid isn't keeping the chamber open 24/7 because he's got more important things to worry about... namely, getting re-elected!

    Frankly (though you will probably disagree, Jonathan), I don't think Reid, as the caucus leader, should be putting his specific electoral concerns over that of his party more generally. But we've seen it before (why else would he give immigration reform higher priority than climate legislation?) and we'll probably see it again. I suppose it just speaks to the problem with selecting a leader who is not in a safe seat. You'd think that, after Daschle, the Dems would have learned...

  2. But is lack of Senate floor time really limiting Democratic accomplishments?

    The heaviest lifting, healthcare, took forever, but that was because it was complex, controversial, and an enormous hat trick to pull off. Finance reform seems to be more or less whisking through. The challenge for the upcoming biggies, climate and immigration, is putting together a coalition to do them at all, not how much time is left on the clock.


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