THE BLOG
03/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time for Obama to Potty Train Congressional Republicans

When my daughter was about 7 years old, she went to a birthday party where each child got to pick one wrapped gift out of a grab bag. Another child (ironically, or not so ironically, the son of a wealthy businessman with a $40 million trust fund) liked my daughter's gift better than the one he had picked. He asked my daughter if he could hold her gift for a minute. My daughter politely let him. When she asked for it back, his face turned red, he yelled "no tradebacks," and ran away screaming.

This boy's childish and boorish behavior reminds me of Congressional Republicans in their response to Obama's attempts at "bipartisanship" on the Economic Stimulus Bill. As with a spoiled child, Obama has two choices: he can let Congressional Republicans get away with their childish behavior, or he can try to teach them how to behave in civilized company.

Obama attempted to treat Congressional Republicans like responsible grown-ups. In an effort to gain Republican support in this national emergency, he put forth a pre-compromised stimulus bill with about 40% Republican-oriented tax cuts to 60% Democratic-oriented spending (without ever asking first if Congressional Republicans would go along.)

In return, Congressional Republicans yelled "no tradebacks" over and over in front of the TV cameras; House Republicans gave the already-compromised Stimulus Bill exactly 0 votes; and Senate Republicans threatened to not even allow the majority of the Senate to vote on the Bill by filibustering. Finally one Republican child, Susan Collins of Maine, came forward and, acting like she had been elected President, agreed she would allow a vote on the Bill if Democrats would cut out about $80 billion dollars in stimulative spending and add about $64 billion in minimally-stimulative tax cuts mostly to the wealthiest 20%, which by Paul Krugman's estimates, would eliminate about 600,000 jobs. Two other Republican friends from Collins' little so-called "centrist" clique, Olympia Snow and Arlen Specter, said they'd go along too.

So Obama has two choices. He can reward these spoiled Republicans children for their irresponsible behavior by pressuring House Democrats to accept Collins' harmful changes in Conference, in which case he will probably get 61 Senate votes for cloture, the bare minimum necessary to allow the majority to vote on the Bill. If he does, he will get a Bill that's certainly far better than nothing, even if it creates hundreds of thousands less jobs than it should.

But Congressional Republicans will have learned that they can roll Obama. If, at the height of Obama's popularity, with economists from right to left warning that the country faces economic catastrophe without a Stimulus Bill, and after Obama makes major concessions to Republicans, all Obama can only muster is 3 Republican votes to end a filibuster, Republicans will smell blood in the water. When Obama later wants to pass a budget, cut a wasteful weapons program, increase aid to education, or reform the health care system, Republicans will filibuster again and demand even bigger concessions before they will allow a Senate vote, if ever.

So it may seem as though the easier course is to give into the demands of the rump Republican caucus led by Susan Collins and get a flawed Stimulus Bill passed a few days more quickly. The result, however, may be to doom Obama's chances of passing other vital parts of Obama's Change agenda over the repeated filibusters of the Republican "Dr. Nos".

There is another choice: Obama can act like Community-Organizer-In-Chief and, along with grassroots movements from around the country, force Senate Republicans to allow the majority to vote on, and pass, an improved Stimulus Bill.

Obama can allow House and Senate Democrats on the Conference Committee to restore many of the spending provisions (like aid to the states and computerization of medical records) and eliminate some of the tax cuts from the Senate version, saving 600,000 jobs (while making a few other modifications to fix some of the handful of examples of overreaching by House Democrats.)

He can then politely ask Republican Senators, even if they oppose the Stimulus Bill, to at least allow it to come to a vote, while making it clear that he won't permit a "gentleman's filibuster" in which all Republicans have to do to block a vote is say they intend to filibuster and the Majority Leader cancels the scheduled roll call.

Instead, if Republican Senators still try to thwart the will of the majority, Majority Leader Reid must make them stage an old-fashioned filibuster in which, in order to prevent a vote, Republicans have to give speeches from the floor of the Senate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through the Presidents Day weekend if necessary. It used to be called "going to the diaper" as Senators prepared to hold the floor without a bathroom break. Give the Senate Republicans a little potty training, if that's what it takes.

While the television cameras capture cots and Porta-Potties being carted onto the Senate floor and diaper-wearing Republicans read the phone book from the podium round-the-clock to prevent a majority vote on the Stimulus Bill, I predict with a high degree of probability that the stock market will be crashing by hundreds of points a day. (Don't worry; it will recover when the Bill passes).

Obama should then make a major address to the nation, turning the Republican filibuster of the Stimulus Bill into a major teaching moment. As with his address after the Rev. Wright controversy, he needs to treat the American people like adults and explain the complexity of the economic crisis. Expanding on his Press Conference, he must explain how 30 years of free market fundamentalism and deregulation--mostly under Republican leadership but also under Democrats--led to the biggest market bubble since the 1920's and the biggest economic collapse since the great depression. He must teach basic Keynesian economics--Why, when private economic demand collapses, only the government has the economic resources to spend enough money to restart the economy and create jobs. I believe that Obama's intelligence and eloquence, if he lays all this out for the American people in a way in which they can understand, can reclaim the leadership of the economic debate from the Congressional Republicans and rally 75% of the country behind his Stimulus Bill.

Simultaneously, grassroots organizations, community groups, labor unions and the netroots must mobilize the country behind the Stimulus Bill and against the obstructionist Republicans. Take to the airways and the internet. Run ads against key Republican senators. Mobilize Governors and Mayors (including Republicans like Charlie Christ of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger) to lobby their recalcitrant Senators. Use the Obama campaign machine, the unions, the netroots, and the progressive infrastructure to mobilize a massive email and phone-in campaign. Organize tens of thousands of teachers, firefighters, cops and nurses to overrun the local offices of Republican "moderates" like Susan Collins and Olympia Snow in Maine, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, George Voinovich in Ohio, and Mel Martinez in Florida demanding the Senators save their jobs by allowing the majority to vote on the Stimulus Bill. Organize tens or hundreds of thousands of other citizens to flood Senate offices in Washington.

With President Obama showing his extraordinary leadership skills, tens or hundreds of thousands of citizens mobilizing, and the stock market tanking, I'm confident that the pressure on at least two Republican Senators will overwhelm their resistance within a day or two, if not sooner. Obama can then offer a couple of face-saving concessions--say $10-$15 billion in cuts to the least stimulative spending provisions of the Bill in exchange for their ending the filibuster.

The nation will get a better Stimulus Bill than the compromised package now emerging from the Senate and hundreds of thousands more Americans will find jobs. But almost as important, Obama and a mobilized popular movement will have potty trained "moderate" Republicans to act like responsible citizens. When it comes time to pass a budget, organize a responsible financial rescue package, or reform the health care system, they won't be so fast to back a monolithic Republican filibuster to thwart the will of the majority. Obama will have greatly increased his odds of passing his Change agenda and achieving a great and transformative Presidency.

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