Our illustrious (cough, cough) White House press corps showed it could get to the bottom of a story with impressively journalistic and probative skills this week. The story that so obviously required multiple questions to President Obama on his trip to Asia? Whether he's eating enough, and whether he's losing weight. Oh, and his gray hair.
Seriously, you can't make this stuff up. Somebody, obviously bored on the excruciatingly long plane ride, decided they'd float the rumor that Obama was skipping meals and getting dangerously thin. Because the reporters were all trapped in the same flying aluminum can, they all decided it was a big deal, patted themselves on the back for doing so, and then took lots of valuable interview time with the president to ask him about it. Over and over again (since they all wanted the "scoop"). Obama's response was that he was eating just fine, thank you, and he wasn't any skinnier than he's always been.
Whew! Good thing we have such an illustrious cadre of journalists, to reassure Americans that the president is not starving himself or anything! After all, it's not like there are any other issues to talk about, or ask the president about.
Such as Sarah Palin, for instance. Palin sure ate up a lot of "news" time last week, which must have overjoyed her publicist and publisher (oodles of free publicity, in other words).
Seriously, there are a few things going on in the world that are actually more important than what the president had for lunch, and what Palin's ghostwriter cobbled together in "her" book.
Such as health care reform legislation, to name but one. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally woke up from his weeks-long nap, and is moving a bill to the Senate floor for debate. It was reported this week that the bill would be introduced on Tuesday, then on Wednesday, then on Thursday, then on Friday, and (currently) on Saturday. Which pretty much sums up the last few months of waiting on Harry. But Harry will be discussed later in the program, so I'll just move on here.
I thought it was appropriate to review exactly what is left to do on the health care reform effort. There are a few hurdles left to clear, and it's going to be a long and drawn-out process. The media will trumpet each one of these hurdles as it happens, but will (my guess) fail to lay out exactly what to expect next at each stage of the process. So I thought I'd fill this lack. Matt Osborne at Huffington Post also has a good overview of the 11-dimensional chess game we're playing, if you'd like an alternate summation of where we are in the process.
The first step is Saturday's vote. Or, I should probably say, "the vote which is currently scheduled for Saturday." This vote will be held in the Senate and is a vote to "end debate about the debate," or to overcome a filibuster/closure attempt to block the bill before it gets to the floor for debate. The media will portray this as a "vote to move the bill to the floor," but this is technically inaccurate, as it is a vote against killing the bill's progress. It's confusing, but this is the Senate we're talking about.
Democrats need 60 votes to overcome the filibuster attempt. Harry Reid thinks he's got them, but then this is the reason why the vote keeps getting pushed back -- because he's obviously still scrambling for the final few votes before he moves ahead. But they can't push it back much further without eating into their own valuable vacation time, because they're all itching to fly back home for a leisurely week off for Thanksgiving.
Once Democrats get the 60 votes they need (throughout this whole explanation, I am assuming Democrats will succeed at each stage, although I should point out that any of these hurdles could derail the entire process and kill health care reform for the year), the Senate will start debating the bill. Amendments will be offered. It's a little unclear which amendments will require only a majority (50 votes plus the Vice President, or 51 votes), and which will require the supermajority of 60 votes. Look for lots of Republican amendments to fail during this stage, and lots and lots of grandstanding by senators who are hoping to see their face on the news.
So, assuming some amendments pass and others fail, eventually Reid will move to close debate and actually vote on the bill as a whole. This is when the second major filibuster will be attempted. And getting 60 votes to overcome it will be even harder, since some of the senators who have publicly committed to killing the first filibuster attempt have pointedly not committed to moving the bill to a final vote. But, probably with some wheeling and dealing, Reid rounds up the 60 votes he needs and defeats the filibuster once again.
Which brings us to the final vote. This vote only requires 50-plus-one, meaning Democrats who don't like the bill can vote against its passage, after voting with the Democrats to kill filibusters. This sort of thing, I should add, is common. John Kerry got lambasted in his bid for the White House, for expecting Americans to know how the Senate actually works, when he said he "was for the bill before he was against the bill" (or was it the other way around?). This is called "having your cake and eating it too," when it comes to explaining your votes to your constituents, and is common practice by both parties in Washington.
But ignoring all of that, a bill passes the Senate! Woo hoo! We're done, right?
This is the trickiest phase of the whole process -- the dreaded conference committee. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid name a limited number of negotiators (which names are on this list will be crucial) to a committee of both House and Senate members, and they get a chance to totally rewrite the bill. Their goal is to come up with a bill that can pass both houses in exactly the same form. This will be challenging indeed, since the vote margins are going to be pretty thin for both houses. A handful of Democrats from the left or the "center" could play the "I'm taking my bat and ball and going home" tantrum game at this point.
Many are the bills which die in conference committee, it needs emphasizing. It's a tightrope wire to walk that sees many, many ideas fall off the wire to perish below (no safety net down there). This will be the toughest part of the whole process.
Eventually, though (assuming success at every stage, as I said), a compromise bill emerges from conference committee. Then it goes to the House and the Senate, where individual senators and the Republican Party en masse will try to derail it by adding amendments willy-nilly. But sooner or later, the House and the Senate vote on the same bill. Over in the Senate, of course, this will mean more filibuster attempts to be dealt with, but in both houses the final vote requires just a simple majority to pass.
The bill, after achieving passage in both houses, then goes to the Oval Office for President Obama to sign.
If this all sounds like a very long and drawn-out process, well, it is. And the new "operative" deadline (as they say in D.C.) is now the State Of The Union address which President Obama will deliver to a joint session of Congress in late January. That is not a lot of time. With so many formidable hurdles left in place, the clock running out becomes more and more of a serious possibility.
In any case, while the news media will portray Saturday's vote (or Sunday's, or Monday's... sigh) as a gargantuan-sized Big Deal, please keep in mind that we've got a long way left to go.
A Democrat this week hit a most impressive milestone, as Senator Robert Byrd became the longest-serving member of Congress in history. This benchmark adds service in both chambers, meaning Byrd's six-year term as a member of the House is added to his impressive 50 years and ten-and-a-half months in the Senate. Byrd's Senate record is already the longest in history, passing Strom Thurmond's a few years ago. So now Robert Byrd is not only the longest-serving senator in American history, but also the longest-serving member of Congress in history as well. For this, he receives an Honorable Mention from us this week.
Representative Alan Grayson also gets an Honorable Mention as well (with special "strange bedfellows" oak leaf cluster), for joining with Ron Paul to win passage of language in a bill to mandate an audit of the Federal Reserve. Other Democrats wanted to water this down, but Grayson and Paul prevailed. For now. Their opponents shut down a vote on the bill after this happened, though, which the White House is reportedly not happy about.
Also annoying the White House is Representative John Conyers. Conyers, however, is on the right side of this issue. He's pressuring President Obama and Rahm Emanuel with some very blunt language: "You know, holding hands out and beer on Friday nights in the White House and bowing down to every nutty right-wing proposal about health care, and saying on occasion that public options aren't all that important is doing a disservice to the Barack Obama that I first met who was an ardent single-payer enthusiast himself." For pressuring Obama to stand up for the ideals he campaigned on, Conyers is also awarded an Honorable Mention this week.
But our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award goes to Attorney General Eric Holder. I have already written twice this week (in Tuesday"s column and Wednesday"s column, in case you missed them) about Holder's decision to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators in a civilian federal court mere blocks from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
Now, reasonable people can disagree about Holder's decision, but we are awarding him the MIDOTW award for how he has handled himself this week. It's a rare thing in Washington to see a government official make a strong decision, and then defend it as the right thing to do without either (a.) trying to blame everyone else for the idea's shortcomings, or (b.) immediately apologizing for the decision, or (c.) "walking back" or even overturning the decision at the slightest sign of political stormclouds on the horizon.
All in all, Holder admirably defended his decision and admirably faced his critics when dragged before a congressional committee. So, as I said, whether you agree with his decision or think it was wrong, Holder was still impressive in the way he strongly stood up for himself after announcing it -- a rare thing in Washington. And for that, we award him the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.
[Congratulate Attorney General Eric Holder on his Department of Justice contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
So, here we are on the health care reform front. A bill may make it to the floor of the Senate tomorrow. But you know what? We could have been here in July. Or September. Or October. This endless series of delays and time wasted can be laid at the feet of one man -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Because it is an inescapable fact that a stronger leader would have moved the legislation a lot further by now.
Now, in Reid's defense, the bill he came up with is a lot stronger than a lot of people thought it would be at this point. The number of times the public option has been declared dead by serious and important people inside the Beltway is staggeringly high. And yet, there it is in Reid's bill. No trigger (at least not yet) is in the bill either -- denying yet another piece of inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom for the past five months. Given what he had to work with, it's not a horrible effort by Reid. Fairness dictates we point this out here.
But Reid has shown over and over again that he simply does not know how to negotiate in a timely fashion. He usually begins negotiating by publicly stating he will be throwing away all his best leverage in the negotiations -- making it much easier for his opponents to defeat him. He has put up with so many delaying tactics on health care reform that we find ourselves only moving a bill to the floor right now -- just before Thanksgiving. Because the Senate is going to go home for a full week next week, it won't be until early December that the floor debate even begins. And after such debate, and after a vote on passage, there still remains the conference committee -- which is going to take a few weeks, at the very least. With the end-of-year break in there, it is already an extremely tough schedule to meet if Congress really wants to pass this by the State Of The Union speech in late January.
Meaning Reid has left everyone with very little elbow room. Which makes it all the easier for opponents to defeat the whole effort -- because now they don't need to absolutely shut it down, they just need to run out the clock for a few more weeks. While Max Baucus certainly deserves some of the scorn for this situation, the buck stops at Harry's desk, as the leader of the Senate Democrats.
As if all of this weren't enough, Reid just announced that he's no longer even considering reconciliation as a last resort. Once again, Reid takes the most powerful weapon at his disposal and, instead of wielding it forcefully, actually chucks it over the side of the boat instead. This seems to be Harry's standard operating procedure -- surrender before the fight begins.
But there's a way to change all of this. The Democratic caucus in the Senate traditionally chooses its leadership in December. Meaning that any Democrat could soon challenge Reid for his leadership role. If a movement started among Senate Democrats to rally behind a more forceful personality, this could put some serious pressure on Harry Reid to get things moving along. Democrats could let it be known privately that if health care reform isn't at least in conference committee by the time they choose next year's leadership, then they would be handing Harry his hat, and repainting his office for his successor.
There are many, many Democratic senators who could fill the void of leadership Harry Reid carries around with him. Pretty much anyone who knows how to negotiate and knows not to throw away their best leverage before the fight begins would get my support, at this point.
Oh, and while they're at it, Democratic senators could also strip Joe Lieberman of his committee chairmanship on the Homeland Security committee if he votes with Republicans to kill health care reform. Just a suggestion.
But for this week, Harry Reid wins his fourteenth Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. That is twice as many as anyone else has won. Get a move on Harry, or else stand out of the way for someone who can. Please.
[Contact Senator Harry Reid on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]
Volume 102 (11/20/09)
I'm going to remain optimistic at the end, here, and write my talking points this week for Democratic politicians (to use on the Sunday morning chat fests) while assuming that the Senate has managed to vote to bring the health care reform bill to the floor. That's right, I'm going to make a leap of faith and assume that Harry Reid manages to get his 60 votes tomorrow night. Because, really, if he doesn't, there won't be a whole lot for Democrats to talk about this Sunday morning.
Anyway, remaining cheerfully (some would say "blissfully," or perhaps "idiotically") optimistic, here is what Democrats should say on Sunday to bring all the pressure they can bear to their fellow Democrats in the Senate who may waver in future votes.
Rushing? Um, no.
The standard cry of the obstructionists in this debate is that we are somehow "rushing" health care reform. Attack this with the disdain it deserves.
"Excuse me, did you say rushing? You think we're rushing into health care reform? The effort to bring quality affordable health care to every American started seventy years ago. This effort has been going on currently ever since the 1960s. We've taken months -- sometimes years -- to come up with portions of this bill. We've debated them non-stop for the past six months. We've spent weeks and weeks putting together final legislation. How, exactly, is any of this 'rushing'?"
The wrong side of history
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe was actually the one to use this line the best so far in this debate.
"History is calling, in the form of health care reform. History will judge us on what we do in Congress in the next few weeks. We Democrats must make a simple choice: do we want to stand on the right side, or the wrong side of history? Do we want this vote to be a proud achievement for our party, and for all of America, or do we want to be shamed later by voting against such wide-sweeping reform? I know which side of history I want to be remembered on, and that is why I will be voting for health care reform."
This is a phrase which got quite a bit of scorn in last year's campaign (see: PUMAs, or "Party Unity, My Ass" soreheads). But it needs to be picked up, dusted off, and given the proud placement it once had.
"The Democratic Party needs to show some unity, for once. Party unity means voting against Republican filibuster attempts in the Senate. I don't care whether Democratic senators vote for or against the bill on the final vote, but I think it is shameful for any Democrat to join the 'Party of Obstructionism' or the 'Party of No' in a procedural vote. It is the coward's way out. The courageous thing to do here is to keep party unity intact, and guarantee an up-or-down vote for the final bill on the Senate floor. Robbing the Senate of that vote, and robbing the people of seeing how you would have voted on the final bill is nothing short of shameful. Party unity used to mean something in Washington, and I hope it means something in the filibuster-killing votes in the Senate in the next few weeks."
Maybe we need new leadership
This one only really works if you are a Democratic senator. Although other Democrats could use it, prefaced with something like "well, you know the scuttlebutt I'm hearing is..." or language to that effect.
"The end of the year is traditionally the time we Democrats caucus to choose our leadership and committee chairmen for the upcoming year. If we can't manage to get a health care bill through a floor vote in the Senate, I and many of my colleagues are going to have to think long and hard about who will be the most effective leaders for the Senate next year. I'm not going to name any names, but there are quite a few of our leaders who seem more interested in causing unconscionable delays to the process rather than exhibiting true leadership. And we will be looking at that quite closely in December."
Want to get re-elected?
These last three are a direct appeal to those mugwumps sitting on a fence on the health care reform debate. Don't appeal to their better interests, appeal to their fear of losing power. It's the best leverage to use in Washington, when you get right down to it.
"Any Democrat thinking of voting against health care reforms should take a good hard look at the opinion polls coming out of their state or district. The American people want health care reform, they expect us to deliver health care reform, and if we are instrumental in blocking health care reform, then they are going to let us know about it. For all the so-called 'moderate' Democrats that I've heard about, when you look at the polls from their own constituents, time after time they show that people want not just health care reform, but actually stronger health care reform than is currently in the bill. These Democrats need to think long and hard about their own political future if they vote against the needs and wishes of their own constituents. Because voting with the Republicans is going to make it a lot harder for you to get re-elected."
Democrats are toast in 2010 without health care reform
In fact, expand this to the whole party.
"Democrats are going to be toast in the midterm 2010 congressional elections if we don't deliver on health care reform. With huge majorities in both houses of Congress, if we can't follow through on the biggest agenda item that got a Democrat elected to the White House, then voters are going to be disgusted with the Democratic Party as a whole come next election day. They are either going to stay home and not vote, or they are going to vote for anyone who isn't an incumbent. Our party's future in Congress hinges in a big way on whether we can pass healthcare reform or not. If we don't, President Obama is going to be a lot weaker next year, and Congress is going to be universally held in contempt by the voters. And a lot of Democrats who are now sitting in office are going to be looking for jobs this time next year."
Democrats deserve to be toast in 2010 without health care reform
This is "part 2" of the previous point.
"And you know what? We Democrats are going to deserve to be toast in the 2010 elections if we can't pass health care reform. We've got the biggest majorities in Congress we've had in a generation, and the voters sent us here for a reason -- to get something done. If we prove that we are incapable of delivering this to the voters who sent us here, then we will absolutely deserve to be stripped of our majorities and our power come next year. I wouldn't blame the voters in the least if they see us fighting amongst ourselves so much, and more worried about our own egos than in producing some legislation to improve people's lives. The voters would be entirely justified in 'throwing the bums out' if we can't manage to get something done. I say this as a warning to all my fellow Democrats, and I sincerely hope they will take it to heart."
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground