Unlike in past Congresses, the Senate is striving to act as a strong independent and skeptical body that actively challenges and criticizes the incoming presidential administration. The Obama administration has also been seeking congressional cooperation and advice. In this era of postpartisan politics, seeking bipartisan consensus is crucial.
Norman J. Ornstein
Now on to the Senate and governance in the great deliberative body, with observations following on the heels of those I made last week about the House.
Obama appears intent on forging majorities that are more than 50 and more than 60, that create a broader consensus or momentum.
In a larger sense, I am delighted to see that Democratic Senators are not acting like minions, foot soldiers in the incoming president's army. To many reporters, the stories this past week of Senate Democrats challenging President-elect Barack Obama on his stimulus plan and on his desire to free up the second half of the Troubled Assets Relief Program funding, along with the sniping over his choice of Leon Panetta to head the CIA, have been juicy--we will see a lot of stories with a narrative suggesting that the president-elect has stumbled on the way to his inaugural, or that big headaches lie ahead.
I don't think that is the operative or accurate narrative. First, I believe, Democrats in the Senate have internalized the lessons from the 108th and 109th Congresses, where a supine Republican legislative branch that did little oversight and not much independent thinking or legislating suffered the wrath of public opinion--a wrath deep-seated enough that voters punished the GOP even two years after they had lost the majority in 2006. They want to have their ideas, based in many cases on decades of experience grappling with problems, injected early in the process, not through a presidential bill given to them as a fait accompli, with their input limited to amendments at the margins. And they want to make clear to everybody, including the voters, that the Senate is not an adjunct of the White House, but a proud and independent body in its own right.
Second, Democrats (and Republicans) have felt completely burned by the TARP experience. No one is ready now to take the word of a president or Treasury secretary that something will be done--not without something more in the form of ironclad or written assurances. Tim Geithner is widely admired and respected, and likely to win confirmation as Treasury secretary by an overwhelming margin. But he was a part of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's team, and that has added to the determination of Congress that it take the initiative on the second half of TARP spending or anything equivalent--including the laden stimulus package.
Third, individual Senators want to make sure that the Obama administration and the president himself remember the protocol here: Don't make announcements that affect or impinge upon major figures in Congress without giving them a heads-up. That was undoubtedly a part of the reason Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) fired that visible shot across the Obama bow on the Leon Panetta nomination--she is, after all, the incoming chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and the head of the CIA is a key player for that panel.
To his credit, Barack Obama is thoroughly aware of all these issues and sensitivities, as are his senior advisers. When David Axelrod left the Senate after a "frank and full exchange of views with Democratic Senators" and was grilled by reporters, he declined to criticize them, saying, "I call it doing their jobs." The president-elect apologized profusely to Feinstein (and others) for not consulting them in advance about Panetta. And he made a flurry of phone calls to lawmakers to explain why he wanted to free up the second $350 billion of TARP funds, and precisely what he would do with them.
At the same time, Obama has gone further in consulting members of the opposition party than any president I can remember, not just calling them or having them for coffee and sweet talk, but soliciting ideas, and heeding many of them. The temptation of a president with his party in the majority is first to compile his plans in-house, then to sell them to his own party, and then to pick off some stray members of the opposition to provide the cushion. Obama appears, at least on the critical stimulus package, to be incorporating lawmakers of both parties at the outset.
Could this be the incarnation of post-partisan politics? Obama appears intent on forging majorities that are more than 50 and more than 60, that create a broader consensus or momentum. Given the scale of the problems and the public vote for change, it may be doable on stimulus, perhaps even on health care. But making it apply to a wider range of issues will take some serious steps by the party leaders and rank-and-file Members of the Senate.
The dynamic in the Senate over the past few years tells us how difficult the task will be. The Senate has been all but defined by the filibuster, the cloture motion, the hold, even the threat of filibuster. Republicans, including leaders and non-leaders, used cloture and its threat more than ever before in the 110th Congress, on highly controversial measures and routine measures alike. In many cases, they were not trying to find a golden mean or asking for a substantive role, but simply trying to delay, retard or kill bills to keep Democrats from having victories.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded by adopting regularly a ploy first applied by former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to reduce embarrassment and force action, namely, filling the amendment tree to squeeze out other options and cut to the chase. Cloture motions were filed even before bills were close to consideration. All of this raised the temperature and the tension on both sides.
Post-partisan politics will require a new model: allowing some amendments, even if they might be embarrassing, avoiding as much as possible the sharp stick in the eye to the minority that comes with filling the amendment tree and trying to let issues play out a bit before filing reflexive cloture motions.
For the minority, the use of the filibuster or threat thereof as a routine weapon should be abandoned; reserve it for the big stuff. Obama will do his part to incorporate Republican Senators in the deliberations and Republican ideas in the mix; Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) need to do their part to make this process really work.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.