Sunday, February 01, 2009

I've Got Your Bipartisanship Right Here

Help me, folks. Seriously. The guy is called the Dean of political reporters, yet this column is written as if he had no idea what has been happening for the past few weeks, or even the past fourteen years.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in early January that there would be no mid-February recess for Congress unless the giant economic stimulus bill demanded by Barack Obama were on its way to the White House, she accomplished two things.

On the positive side, she clearly signaled to Republicans that delaying tactics could cost them vacations and campaign time in their home districts. But conversely, her hard line was a tacit green light to her fellow Democrats to ram the staggeringly expensive piece of legislation through, no matter the objections the GOP raised.

Last week the $819 billion tax and spending bill passed the House with all but 11 Democrats supporting it and not a single Republican voting yes. The first important roll call of the Obama presidency looked as bitterly partisan as any of the Bush years.

It was not for lack of effort on the part of the new president. Obama went to the Capitol to visit Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers, and he encouraged the Democratic draftsmen to scrap a couple of egregiously irrelevant spending programs they had penciled into the bill.

With the economy sinking like the Titanic - breaking up, dragging those trapped in the hold to the frozen depths, with the only difference being the captain who brought us to this point no going down with the ship but escaping - it would seem that speed was of the essence. While details of the proposal were time-consuming to read, the general outline of the bill and its intended effects have been bandied about since the campaign. The Republicans have been signaling since before the election that any kind of stimulus bill would face a fight, not on principle, but simply because the Republicans wanted to put up a fight.

Those "egregiously irrelevant" parts of the stimulus bill included Medicaid support for states (including family planning help as well as treatment and prevention help for the poor) and a revitalization plan for the National Mall in Washington, DC, which would have provided hundreds of jobs to the Capitol area. Obviously irrelevant putting people to work during a recession. . .
This bill, so much larger than ordinary legislation, even the wartime defense appropriations, is almost certain to be the biggest, if not the last, weapon the government employs to halt the sickening economic slide that has gripped the country in the past five months. So much is uncertain, and so much is riding on it, that it's worth taking time to get it right.

Professional economists from both the right and left have raised questions that are anything but frivolous about its design. Martin Feldstein, a top Reagan adviser, has questioned the efficacy of the current menu of tax cuts and spending proposals to generate consumer demand and produce jobs. Alice Rivlin, who played a similar role for Bill Clinton, has called for a sharper focus on short-term job growth as distinguished from slow-acting steps for energy independence or health-care quality. Even the Congressional Budget Office has challenged how quickly this massive infusion of dollars will be felt in family budgets and the marketplace.

Beyond these policy challenges, there are political considerations that make it really important for Obama to take the time to negotiate for more than token Republican support in the Senate.

Nothing was more central to his victory last fall than his claim that he could break the partisan gridlock in Washington. He wants to be like Ronald Reagan, steering his first economic measures through a Democratic House in 1981, not Bill Clinton, passing his first budget in 1993 without a single Republican vote.

The first way leads to long-term success; the second foretells the early loss of control.

This vote will set a pattern for Obama, one way or the other. He needs a bipartisan majority because, tough as this issue is, harder ones await when he turns to energy, health care and entitlement reform.

The Democrats have to give the Republicans, who as a party lost the past two national elections, what they want, because the Democrats, who have vast majorities in both Houses of Congress and have an extremely popular incumbent President, because otherwise people might think the Democrats aren't serious about bipartisanship. Obviously. Except, of course - and everyone outside Washington seemes to understand this - it is the Republicans who aren't serious. Obama and Pelosi tossed Boehner's boys and girls every bone they could; Obama even tossed Pelosi's Medicaid support out, promising to put it in another bill, if it would induce Republicans to vote for it. They didn't. They never intended to. They just wanted to see how far they could push Obama and the Congressional Democrats.

The Senate's turn will be interesting, because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had previously indicated that there would be no problem ending debate on the bill. Then, a couple days ago, Charles Grassley of Iowa indicated that, yes, indeed, the Republicans would filibuster any attempt to bring the bill to a vote. This should be the point where Obama does a couple things. First, he reinserts all the stuff he pulled out of the House version. Then, he holds a press conference or delivers a speech to the nation, outlining the events of the past couple weeks, naming names and calling people out. Then, he lets the Republicans decide - do they crew the American people in the name of some non-existent principle, or do they go along to get along? My guess is even with public pressure being brought to bear, the Republicans would be obstructionist.

Let them. The Democrats have no need of them, not even in the Senate. The cloture rule can be set aside by a simple majority, and if it comes to that, the Democrats should remind the Republicans who is in charge and why.

Unlike Broder, I believe the American people want results. They want action. They want the Democrats to do what the voters sent them to do. Some mythical ideal of bipartisanship, achieved by people negotiating in good faith isn't going to happen because the Republicans do not now, and have not for almost a decade and a half, dealt in good faith. Rather than show little yellow, or even a little leg (as it were), Obama should put the keys in the steamroller, and hand the driving over to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid (although, God knows the Democrats could do much better in a majority leader than Harry Reid). When the bill passes and is signed with not a single Republican standing behind the President, Obama should simply smile for the cameras, and claim all the success for himself and the Democrats in Congress.

Now that's bipartisanship I can believe in. Credit where credit is due. Make those who stand in the way of helping the American people pay the price for their obstructionism.

Virtual Tin Cup

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