Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just showed Democrats what real leadership (and what bargaining from a position of strength) looks like. After three days of repeated cloture votes to bring Chris Dodd's Wall Street reform bill to the floor of the Senate for debate, it appears the Republicans are ready to blink. The Republicans successfully managed to block the debate, in three successive votes, but they know they're paying a political price for doing so. At this point, the only question is how many of them will jump the aisle and vote with the Democrats in the next vote.
Harry Reid and Chris Dodd have shown an amazing amount of backbone in this fracas. Dodd has, to be blunt, been known for watering bills down which affect the financial sector at times (he chairs the relevant Senate committee); and Reid has, again, to be blunt, not exactly been known for taking such a strong stand on important legislation, also preferring to barter away strong language to gain votes. But, in this instance, both held firm, and both showed -- at long last -- how a majority party is supposed to act. President Obama has been doing a great job of cheering them on, as well, and urging Democrats to hold fast and not bargain away key parts of the legislation (the legislation, thanks to Blanche Lincoln, will actually be stronger on derivatives regulations than the White House had initially supported).
The only question now, really, is how many Republicans will defect in the next vote. Maine's two moderate Republican senators will likely lead the way, and when the Republicans know they've lost this particular round, more may follow their lead (Ohio's Voinovich, possibly Massachusetts' Brown, etc.).
Democrats really had the winning hand on this argument, and everyone in town knew it. The vote, after all, is not to approve the bill itself, or even to vote on the bill, but rather to simply move the bill to the floor to begin debate. And few Americans are feeling very tolerant of the political position "we won't even talk about reforming Wall Street," which is what the Republican position boiled down to. Or, perhaps, "we want a backroom deal before we debate this in front of the public" -- also an unpopular position with the public lately, which Republicans helpfully pointed out when Democrats were using this tactic (see: Ben Nelson, who is coincidentally trying to get his own sweetheart deal this time around, too).
The way I hear the scuttlebutt, last week the White House and Reid agreed that they had such an overwhelmingly popular position on Wall Street reform, that the time for dealing had ended. Even Chris Dodd was still holding out hope for working things out with his Republican counterpart Richard Shelby, when Reid and Obama told him to not even bother. Obama and Reid drew a line in the sand -- the bill could be modified to improve and strengthen it (as it indeed was by Blanche Lincoln), but it would not be weakened. A weaker bill simply was not an option -- Obama went as far as saying he'd veto a weaker bill, and Harry Reid scheduled the floor vote for Monday and held to his schedule. When it didn't work Monday, Reid scheduled a vote for Tuesday. When that didn't work, he held a vote this morning. When that didn't work, he threatened to hold an all-night session and just keep on voting.
Call him the "Energizer bunny" of the Senate, if you will. Because Reid knew that with each successive vote, the pressure mounted enormously on the Republicans. All the slick talking points the Republicans tried to deploy on the issue failed miserably, and they were left grasping at proverbial straws as they floundered around for some sort of explanation for why they were holding the debate hostage in an effort to cut a backroom deal to weaken consumer protections. With each successive vote, Republicans have been getting more and more nervous about the prospects that these votes will figure prominently in Democratic campaign ads in the very near future. Yesterday, in a brilliant bit of scheduling, Carl Levin called the fatcats of Goldman Sachs on the carpet in a committee hearing, which dominated the day's news cycle. But with that out of the way, Republicans knew full well that the rest of the week in political news was going to be an endless repetition of "Republicans blocking debate on Wall Street reform," complete with round-the-clock bleary-eyed voting sessions which play so well on television.
Today, talks between Dodd and Shelby officially broke down. This means Republicans cannot even hide behind the excuse of "we're waiting to see if a bipartisan compromise can be reached before we let the Senate publicly debate the issue." The answer is now in -- no, such a compromise will not happen. And even Mitch McConnell knows that this stage of the game is about to be over, with Republicans in full retreat.
It wasn't even just that Democrats had such a good hand in this poker game -- Republicans also knew that their hand was incredibly weak. Because they have desperately been trying to convince a skeptical public that they're really -- no, honestly, really -- the ones who want stronger reforms. While they tried to weaken them behind closed doors, in fact. They couldn't even agree on what their own preferred version of the bill would look like, and when they tried floating a summary of what the Republican plan would be, it was roundly panned as actually weakening most of the bill.
The weakness of the Republican hand is really why they were so desperately trying to avoid standing up for it in public. Because they know full well that any amendment they suggest adding to the bill which does indeed strengthen it will likely be supported by Democrats, and will likely pass with a big bipartisan vote. But anything they try to add which weakens it will be exposed for what it is -- doing Wall Street's bidding -- very publicly, in the harsh media spotlight of a Senate floor debate.
Now, a quick reading of pretty much any of my columns on the health reform debate will show that I have not exactly been a big fan of Harry Reid's leadership skills in the Senate. And I had plenty to say at the time about President Obama's shortcomings in the legislative arena, as well. But both Obama and Reid showed this week what a lot of Democrats have been waiting for (seemingly for a long time now) -- how to properly "spend political capital." Obama, Reid, and the Democrats are seen as "being on the side of the angels" in this debate, and a whopping two-thirds of the public is solidly behind their efforts. But this time -- unlike the health reform trainwreck -- both Reid and Obama stood their ground from the very beginning. By being not even slightly interested in some backroom deal with Republicans in order to water the bill down -- and publicly stating this over and over -- they called the Republicans' bluff. Republicans were under the impression they'd walk away from this one with the public on their side, as they largely did in the health reform debate. They miscalculated badly on this score. But even a winning hand for Democrats and a losing hand for Republicans does not guarantee Democratic victory. These are, after all, Democrats we are discussing here (see: herding cats).
And the bill does still have a long way to go, so nobody should be popping champagne corks any time soon. The Senate has to pass a bill, then the House and Senate have to reconcile their two bills in conference committee, and then both houses have to vote on the same bill. There are plenty of opportunities for legislative mischief along the way. But this time it's going to be a little different, because pretty much everyone in Washington (even Republicans) admit that this bill is going to eventually pass -- in stark contrast to the debate over health reform, where it was really up in the air until the final vote was tallied.
But Democrats, for once, have staked out their position early. The Democratic position can be summed up as: we will add to the bill, but we will not subtract from it. We can discuss making it stronger, but it will get no weaker. And that is a pretty good place to start from, I have to say. Because even if compromises do have to be made to pass a final bill, the compromises will now be small ones around the edges, and not the wholesale chucking of good ideas under the bus in order to pick up a vote here or there. Which, as I said, is what Democrats have been looking for from both President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for quite some time now. This week, they delivered. Harry Reid showed the country that he could lead, when the chips were down. Which he should be commended for, and encouraged to continue doing on a regular basis.
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