03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Putting the Power Back in the Hands of the People Against Rogue Democrats

Like many of us, I've been cursing Max Baucus through most of the summer, for blocking our best chance for real health care reform in forty years. Now Baucus at least says he won't filibuster, but Joe Lieberman threatens to bring the bill down, and with it perhaps Obama's presidency.

As the health care fight approaches its end game, there's now a way for us, as ordinary citizens, to exercise power, and create enough of a potential cost to deter Lieberman, Baucus, Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, or any of the other Democratic or once-Democratic obstructionists from using the threat of supporting a Republican filibuster to destroy our chance to move forward. These are small-state Senators, so most of us aren't constituents. As a result, we've watched, fuming in frustration, as they've rejected effective and popular approaches--like a House version that includes a serious public option and covers the costs by taxing the wealthy--in favor of highly regressive approaches almost certain to feed political backlash. Their resistance has made the Democrats look weak, divided, and incapable of leading. They're likely to do the same on global climate change, and every other key issue.

But MoveOn has now created a simple but elegant approach to create at least a measure of deterrence: a pledge to back challengers against any member of the Democratic Caucus (including Lieberman) who supports a filibuster. We pledge whatever amount we can, even if only modest. The more money that gets pledged, and the more supporters, the more it could provide a real base for high-quality opponents to step up and challenge any even nominally Democratic Senator who is willing to so thoroughly dash the hopes of the American public as to prevent us from at least beginning to fix our profoundly broken health care system. And with enough support, the deterrent will actually work, and even the most craven and opportunistic Senators on the fence (I'm talking about you, Joe Lieberman), will come into line. These Senators could still vote their conscience, or lack thereof, and refuse to actively support bills or amendments they disagreed with. No one's denying them their voice or their actual vote on the bill. They just can't empower Republican efforts to completely block an up-or-down vote, and to totally obstruct the chance to address any of our key issues.

I actually proposed a similar idea in an earlier version of this piece, and am gratified to learn that it contributed toward MoveOn's critically important initiative. Obviously, the more people participate in this pledge, the more pressure it creates for these Senators to back down from completely being loyal soldiers for the insurance companies, because the more credible opponents they would draw. Most of the Senators we're pressuring also happen to come from small states where media is relatively cheap, so the potential money available from such an approach would also go further than in many others, making the list even more of a deterrent.

This kind of petition could also be a credible threat for a longer horizon. Max Baucus runs next in 2012. Popular and progressive Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is term limited out in 2010. If Baucus backtracks on his recent promise not to filibuster, enough people pledging might well encourage Schweitzer to run. When I broached the petition idea to former nine-term Montana Congressman Pat Williams, he loved it, calling it "precisely the way to move the Congress to do what the majority of Americans want."

Forcing Senators like Lieberman, Nelson, Baucus, and Lincoln to respond to the American public would be the right thing politically as well as morally. In a recent Lake Research poll, 64 percent of those surveyed opposed requiring all Americans to buy insurance in the absence of a public option. With a public option included, the margin reversed, and 60 percent supported it. In Lieberman's home state of Connecticut, a public option got 68 percent support. When a recent CBS poll asked how to finance the health care bill, people responded, by a 55 to 37 percent margin, that they should tax those making over $250,000 a year, the approach of Pelosi's House version.

We could also use collective pressure to demand that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee refuse to help any Democratic Senators who support a Republican filibuster. This seems a reasonable line to draw, given how destructive the resistance of this small group has been to the Party's ability to build on their electoral mandate and act. Others have talked of a pledge to refuse to donate or volunteer for any particular candidates who'd cross that line. But withholding money or support in the general election is a risky game of chicken, where we if we lose, we're guaranteed an even-worse Republican. Primary challenges have a chance of actually ending up with a decent Senator who represents their constituency.

Given enough people who pledge, this just might keep these obstructionist Senators honest enough to do what they should have to begin with, in actually working to pass good bills, so we won't have to recruit new challengers. Think of how Arlen Specter has become more progressive since the primary challenge of Joe Sestak. The challenges here would be more hypothetical, but could well have the same positive affect. A petition with enough signatures would also give Harry Reid some leverage to stand up more firmly when merging the two Senate bills, or to pursue the reconciliation option that allows passage of key sections with just 50 votes. It will also encourage Nancy Pelosi to continue drawing the line for a strong public option and progressive taxation when the bills go to the joint Senate-House committee. If we can get the obstructionists to realize their lack of loyalty might just cost them their Senate seats, they might actually be the ones to back down.

Paul Rogat Loeb
is the author of
The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear.

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