Senate Democrats think they have figured out how to go on offense against a united GOP intent on watering down and frustrating their agenda: Make them vote. Again, and again, and again, if need be.
In what could be a template for the rest of the year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has taken off the gloves and forced Republicans into a corner on financial reform, putting the onus on them to explain to the public why they are voting repeatedly to block debate on the bill.
That united Republican front appeared to be cracking late Tuesday amid bumpy bipartisan talks, a rash of ugly headlines and hardening Democratic resolve.
After Republicans and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) voted to block debate on the bill for a second straight day Tuesday, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said he would eventually switch his vote if bipartisan talks failed to make progress soon.
"Yes, of course I will," he said, adding that he thinks GOP leaders understand his position. Voinovich pointed to the public's desire for reform: "They want us to get something done. ... We're genuinely trying to work something out."
Republican moderates have squawked day after day that Reid's decision to hold a series of cloture votes was counterproductive given that negotiations were moving forward behind the scenes between Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). But Democrats countered that those negotiations have been going on for months, and Republicans have only been getting serious with the bill coming to the floor and the heat of votes focusing their attention.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who played a key role working to bridge the partisan gap in committee, sounded pessimistic that a deal was likely in the offing.
"I just don't think any time in the near future there is going to be a bipartisan agreement," he said. Corker declined to say who was at fault — Democrats or Republicans — but said he felt the "goal posts keep moving."
Shelby sounded more optimistic, even though he began circulating a Republican alternative proposal on banking reform. Shelby said talks between him and Dodd have narrowed to disagreements measured by inches instead of miles.
"I don't think we can agree on everything," Shelby said. "I think the next day or so are very important because ultimately we can't negotiate everything. We'll have to go to the floor."
Dodd called it "breathtaking" that Republicans continued to block debate on the bill. "To be blocking any effort by this Congress to deal with the failures of Wall Street financial firms and the danger they put our country in is awfully difficult to explain to the American people," he said. "They do so, in my view, at their political peril."
[IMGCAP(1)]Not that the Republicans didn't try. They argued their vote was simply a matter of leverage; if they voted to allow the bill on the floor, Democrats would have less reason to negotiate with Shelby and produce a bill more to the GOP's liking — one with a weaker consumer protection agency, among other provisions.
But that kind of nuance doesn't always translate to headlines, and Democrats gleefully trumpeted stories across the country that highlighted the GOP's blocking of the bill and sought to pin Republicans with the label of the party defending Wall Street.
It is also quite a switch from the debate over health care reform, when Democrats spent so much time arguing publicly among themselves or bottled up in committee that they found it hard to pivot and train their fire on Republicans.
Senior Democratic aides said the tougher tactics on the Wall Street bill could be a template for several items later this year.
"I think a lot of our caucus feels we have to draw sharper contrasts. This is just a good jumping-off point to do it from," one said.
Future jobs bills, a small-business bill, some energy items and a bill reacting to the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission campaign finance decision could all be ripe for putting Republicans on the defense, the aide said.
"On Citizens United, they are going to have to explain why they are for corporations controlling our elections," the aide said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Republicans were paying a big price for saying no.
"The Republicans are on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of politics," he said. "I don't know when they'll come to that realization, but until they do, they'll continue to pay a price for it."
Rank-and-file Democrats also applauded Reid.
"I think we're in a strong position," Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said. "The other side is in dangerous water on this. The more [Republicans] try to stop the debate on this, the more they look like they're with Wall Street. And that's not a good place to be, substantively."
But Republican moderates warned the Democrats' tactics could backfire.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who last year spent hours in Reid's office negotiating details of the stimulus package and eventually served as a key vote for Democrats on the issue, ripped Reid's rash of cloture votes as unhelpful.
"It seems to me premature for the Majority Leader to keep forcing divisive votes when all sides report that progress is being made," Collins said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who met with Shelby and Reid on Monday to find a way to move the bill, said she's confident that Shelby is working productively to do so. The question, Snowe said, is whether Democrats are willing to work toward a better bipartisan bill.
"It's a question of whether they want the politics or the policy," Snowe said.
At least on financial reform, Democrats are increasingly confident they will get both.