Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Senate Gamesmanship

I don't know how many times I have implored Senators to do the right thing but they don't seem to be paying attention. They keeping letting themselves get "played" because they are unwilling to take a stand and as I have said before, it's not even very risky. It's almost as if they have bought in to the pundit mantra that it's not cool to care (see Glenn Greenwald's excellent piece on this topic here).

TPM Reader RM checks in ...

As a lawyer at a large corporate law firm and former Navy veteran, I am no expert on the parliamentary procedure but am a bit perplexed at the approach the Democrats are taking on this. They have maneuvered to get Republicans on record "blocking" debate, but only because Harry Reid seeks to limit debate and a substitute proposal by McConnell. Thus the Republicans can argue about a convoluted process and complain that they could not offer an alternative they wanted. And at that, all the Democrats want to debate is a choice between two Republican (Hagel and Warner) alternatives.

I have a modest proposal. Why don't the Senate Democrats put forward a proposed rule that the debate:

(1) is subject to any and all amendments (for binding resolutions, for the "no cutting off funds" proposal that McConell wants) and that there shall be no limit on the debate;
(2) will be held from 9 am to 7pm every weekday, Monday through Friday, until the debate is concluded;
(3) will require, just like the Clinton impeachment trial, that every Senator be physically present in their seats for all of the debate (I mean, the issues are at least equally important).

Maybe the inability of Tim Johnson to be present will cost the Democrats a vote. Maybe the Republicans can filibuster adoption of this rule. But at least the Democrats would have a clean record on which to argue that the Republicans really do not want to debate. If the Republicans manage to get the substantive votes to adopt some alternative resolution, so be it. They will be stuck with their vote come 2008.

And, as a cherry on top, the rule should also specifically invite the President of the Senate to preside personally over the entire debate, every weekday, until it is over. Let's see Dick Cheney say he has more important things to do. After all, George Bush is the Commander in Chief and the Decider, so why can't Cheney take the time (especially in light of TPM Muckraker's find that Cheney is uniquely suited, as the previously unknown fourth branch of government, to moderate this debate). Let's offer Cheney the opportunity to be on CSPAN every day, dealing with this. Then we shall see who "cuts and runs."

It escapes me why the Democrats appear to have no skill at setting up the parliamentary process in a way that makes their points in a simple way. Force the debate. Even in the House, when the vote was forced, and the Republicans tries play games over the Murtha resolution, we all saw that the American public understood exactly what was going on.

Curious (and apoplectic),

RM

RM makes a very important point. But before getting to that issue, it's important to understand precisely what happened on the senate floor today, what parliamentary procedures were in play and why it ended up as it did.

The Republicans main aim here was to prevent a no-confidence vote in the senate on the president's war policy. They threatened a filibuster for a while until they finally came up with a rationale for the filibuster. And what they came up with was this ...

There were three resolutions in play today. The Warner-Levin anti-surge resolution. The McCain-Graham-Lieberman pro-surge resolution. Then there was a third resolution offered by Sen. Judd Gregg. The key is the Gregg resolution. All the Gregg resolution really said was that it's the Commander-in-Chief's duty to assign military missions and the Congress's duty to fund them. (Constitutionally, it's a ridiculous claim. But let's set that aside for the moment.)

Now, here's the rub. The Democrats wanted them all to go to a simple majority vote. The Republicans wanted each to go to a 60+ filibuster-breaking vote.

How do the two thresholds shape the debate?

If each goes to a simple majority vote, the anti-surge resolution wins, the pro-surge resolution loses and the Gregg amendment probably wins too. But the headline is the repudiation of the president. The Gregg amendment is an afterthought.

However, if each resolution goes to a 60 vote test, the thinking was that both surge resolutions (pro and con) would fail. And only the Gregg amendment would win.

So opposition to the president would lose and the only winning amendment would be one that gets the senate on the record saying that Congress is obligated to fund whatever missions the president chooses.

That's what happened.

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