Saturday, June 09, 2007

A House Divided

We all breathed a sigh of relief when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress last November. Of course, in the Senate that control is tenuous: 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats. One of those Independents—Bernie Sanders—is reliably liberal. The other one is Joe Lieberman, reliably unreliable. Currently, the Republicans are down to 48 members due to the demise of Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming, who succumbed to leukemia last week at the age of 74. Wyoming law requires, however, that his replacement come from the same party, so the power dynamics in the Senate will not change.

These facts are worth reviewing in light of the harsh criticism leveled at Senate Democrats lately. Many Americans—not just Democrats—were understandably angry that Congress did not refuse to fund the war without a time-table for withdrawal. Bush vetoed the first such bill and threatened to continue to do so until restrictions on his power were removed. True, the final bill contained “benchmarks” which the Iraqi government must attain to continue to receive reconstruction funding, but a provision allows the President to waive those benchmarks, rendering them meaningless. To all appearances, Congress caved to pressure from the White House.

But without a larger majority in the Senate, there was little Democrats could do. To override a veto requires 67 votes, almost an impossibility in the narrowly divided Senate. President Bush is thus emboldened not only to veto the Iraq spending bill, but also to threaten a veto of legislation criminalizing gasoline price-gouging, as well as a bill requiring the government to negotiate lower Medicare prescription prices.

Even the Democrats’ plan to pass a resolution of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may fail next week unless they are able to garner the 60 votes required by Senate rules to end debate. Without those votes, Republicans can simply filibuster the resolution. Of course, when Republicans held the Senate, they threatened to change the long-standing Senate rules so that Democrats could not filibuster Federal Judge and Supreme Court nominees. Only the “Gang of Fourteen” compromise kept this Senate tradition intact, achieved when the powerless Democrats agreed to employ the filibuster only under extreme circumstances.

Should the Democrats change the rules now? Republicans certainly deserve such a move, but playing tit-for-tat politics is hardly good government. In any case, we are all reminded of the high stakes in the 2008 election: We must win the White House—and we must also improve our margin of power in the Senate. Until then, very little of the Democratic agenda will find success.

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