The Republican Party has, up until recently, tried to distance itself from the "Party of No" label which Democrats are fond of using against them. "It's all the Democrats' fault that we can't bask in the sunshine of bipartisanship," they used to say. But since Barack Obama's signature on health care reform legislation, the Republicans seem to actually be embracing the "Party of No" concept.
This is going to make the midterm elections much easier for Democrats, if they can manage to point it out every time it happens from now until November. That's a big "if," though, since Democrats have muffed such chances in the past. A few years ago, Republicans voted en masse against honoring Mother's Day, for instance (you just can't make this stuff up), but not much political hay was made of this golden opportunity by Democrats at the time. More recently, last December Republicans tried to make the Pentagon's checks start bouncing -- in the middle of two wars -- and Democrats barely mentioned it. So it's not a "given" that Democrats can capitalize on such Republican mistakes.
Of course, this week is going to be a week of parliamentary mischief over in the Senate, as Republicans try every trick in the book to gum up the gears of government in a desperate attempt to kill a bill which fixes several things they've loudly complained against (like the "Cornhusker Kickback"). But that's actually normal and expected behavior, believe it or not. All the shenanigans Republicans are engaging in this week (such as refusing to work in committees for more than two hours a day) are part and parcel of the grand dance of politics in Washington, intended as a poke in the eye to Democrats, to show how massively upset Republicans are. Both parties do this sort of thing all the time, during debate on contentious subjects. It's a way of getting yourself in the news, and drawing attention to your anger. Republicans are usually better at these stunts, but Democrats are fully capable of similar behavior as well, at times.
But everyone in the Senate -- even prominent Republicans -- expects the reconciliation bill to pass by the end of the week. The dirty secret that most Americans aren't aware of is that the only way to get most anything done in the Senate is to hold their vacation time hostage. Harry Reid will just keep the Senate in session until the Senate votes. If Republicans want to delay that into the upcoming two-week vacation (which is scheduled to start Saturday), so be it. But they likely won't delay it much, or at least they will back down after a few days stuck in Washington (past the point when their vacation is supposed to have begun). This is why the original Senate bill passed on Christmas Eve, remember. This also works in the House -- they started their vacation this Monday, after delaying it two days to vote Sunday night.
But while parliamentary mischief is par for the course during the debates on such votes, it is not normal beyond the vote itself. Once the issue has been resolved, Congress usually moves forward on other subjects. Bad feelings may remain, but not to the point of sheer obstructionism.
Senator John McCain, however, is adamant that -- because health reform passed -- Senate Republicans are just going to shut down all business for the remainder of this year. In a recent radio interview, McCain said: "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year. They [Democrats] have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."
He was soon echoed by Senator Lindsey Graham, in a flip-flop so blindingly swift it caused whiplash among pundits across the land. On the same day Graham penned an op-ed article in the Washington Post which trumpeted a bipartisan draft of a bill (the bill, and the op-ed, were co-authored by Senator Chuck Schumer) on comprehensive immigration reform -- the same afternoon, Graham was quoted saying: "The first casualty of the Democratic health care bill will be immigration reform. If the health care bill goes through this weekend, that will, in my view, pretty much kill any chance of immigration reform passing the Senate this year." Earlier in the day, Graham and Schumer wrote in their op-ed: "We urge the public and our colleagues to join our bipartisan efforts in enacting these reforms."
McCain and Graham are both being crystal clear: "We are taking our ball and our bat, and we are going home. No issue which confronts the country is going to be deemed important enough for us to end our tantrum over health reform's passage." In other words, "Call us the 'Party of No' from now on!"
Senator Judd Gregg also got in on the kicking-and-screaming-on-the-floor action, although he was a bit more honest in his assessment of the future. "In my opinion, the institution of the Congress has been fundamentally harmed," Gregg said in a CNBC interview, but did later admit: "There will be other events in this nation which capture the attention of the American people. So it's very possible that people will not be as focused on this by next November."
Senator Jon Kyl was also a bit more realistic, in an interview with Jim Lehrer from PBS' NewsHour. When asked by Lehrer whether he would support McCain in not cooperating with Democrats any more on any other legislation, Kyl responded:
Well, on the major things, like -- that the president has talked about doing, like immigration reform, for example, something Senator McCain and I have worked on before, it's going to be very, very hard to get bipartisan consensus on those things that we used to have, to some extent. And, so, I think, in that sense, John McCain is right.
Now, the truth -- and I know John would agree with this, too -- every day, particularly on regional matters and other things, where there is less partisan politics, there will be cooperation between House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, as there always is.
But there's no question that the procedure that was used here and ramming this through, when the American people still oppose this about 60-40, according to a poll just two days ago from CNN, I think that it will be much more difficult to get bipartisan action on big legislation.
Once again, even while hedging a bit on McCain's comments, Kyl is unquestionably saying that Republicans are so angry about health reform passing that they are just not going to cooperate on anything major.
This isn't the best thing to campaign on, but Republicans have not figured this out yet. They may, though. Tempers are running high right now, but once Republicans come back after their vacation, they may realize that openly admitting that they are the Party of No isn't going to win them many votes among independent voters. Kyl, by the way, is also sending a very strong signal to Latino voters that their concerns are going to be used as a political pawn by the Republican Party (not exactly the way to gain Latino voters, but that's a whole other subject).
This year, voters will be faced with two basic choices. Elect more Republicans to Congress, and guarantee that Washington will be completely gridlocked for two years; or elect Democrats who want to get some things accomplished, and are looking forward to the future.
Democrats are -- for once -- actually doing a good job of communicating this to the public. Here is Harry Reid's spokesman, on the McCain comments:
For someone who campaigned on 'Country First' and claims to take great pride in bipartisanship, it's absolutely bizarre for Senator McCain to tell the American people he is going to take his ball and go home until the next election. He must be living in some parallel universe because the fact is, with very few exceptions, we've gotten very little cooperation from Senate Republicans in recent years.
At a time when our economy is suffering and we're fighting two wars, the American people need Senator McCain and his fellow Republicans to start working with us to confront the challenges facing our country -- not reiterating their constant opposition to helping working families when they need it most.
He's right. Politically, if Republicans continue their tantrum once the Senate passes the reconciliation bill, and decide to make obstructionism the official party platform for the upcoming campaign, it's going to make it a lot easier for Democrats to convince the convincible segment of independent voters that Democrats are the adults in the room, who are seriously taking on the problems of the country in an effort to provide a brighter future. Republicans, to the same slice of the electorate, may look more like a six-year-old who didn't get his way, as they promise to repeal everything and march America firmly into the past. Up until now, Republicans have tried to paint their own obstructionism as being somehow the Democrats' fault, for not being "bipartisan" (as the Republicans define it). But when they're on the airwaves actually bragging about how obstructionist they plan to be -- on everything, no matter how important the issue -- then they will be seen as truly embracing the "Party of No" label for their own. Which might just give the Democrats a lot better chance in the upcoming election than conventional wisdom now says they have. We'll see.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant