‘Obstructionist’ Charge May Not Work for GOP

Posted July 12, 2004 at 6:44pm

As the Senate descends into a predictable partisan standoff three and a half months before the presidential election, Republicans are finding that their tried-and-true method of blaming Democratic “obstructionism” for the Senate’s inability to pass legislation is falling on deaf ears this time around. [IMGCAP(1)]

While there is ample evidence that Senate Democrats are doing their very best to prevent easy passage of a host of GOP priorities — ranging from appropriations bills to a class-action reform measure and an international corporate-tax measure — Republicans don’t seem to be getting as much mileage out of the “obstructionist” label as they did in 2002, when they won back a slim Senate majority after a year and a half of Democratic rule.

“The obstructionist charge never works when it’s made by the majority,” said Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the former Senate Republican leader. “The Democrats charged us with being obstructionists in ’02, and in fact — oh yeah — we were tying up legislation. We knew they’d get the blame, and they did. And the reverse is true now.”

Indeed, as Lott noted, Democrats appear to be suffering little negative media coverage from the “obstructionist” label this time around, even as Lott described their use of Senate blocking tactics as “the worst I have ever seen.”

Democrats are “going to get away with it,” said Lott, “because, you know what the American people are saying? ‘Wait a minute, doesn’t your party have the White House, the majority of the House and the Senate, and you’re blaming it on these poor old helpless people in the minority?’”

Despite what Lott presents as an obvious difficulty for Republicans, the Senate GOP leadership just can’t seem to let go of the obstructionist charge — even as Democrats, and some Republicans, point to the GOP’s own missteps as the reason their legislative agenda flails on the Senate floor.

Last week, Frist complained to reporters that he had been “pleading” with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to let him go to conference on the international corporate tax bill, which is designed to end European trade sanctions against American goods.

Democrats have indeed been blocking a number of bills from moving to House-Senate conference committees, and Frist’s political calculation, it seems, was that the public would not see his desperate-sounding pleas as evidence of GOP helplessness, but rather would blame Democrats for subverting, as Frist put it, “the interest of the American people, manufacturing, the jobs base, the economy itself.”

Of course, as Lott pointed out, Frist could stop begging Democrats to give him a break and instead use procedural tactics to force a vote on going to conference. If Democrats actually filibustered the motion to go to conference, Republicans then would have enough ammunition to blame them for keeping European tariffs in place — especially since the tariffs increase 1 percentage point for every month Congress does not act.

“You cannot let the minority dictate how you handle a bill,” Lott advised. “You’ve got to roll them, and you’ve got to do it with a smile on your face.”

But Frist has repeatedly maintained that there are not enough days left in the session to force a series of votes on anything and everything.

“My message is that when we have so few days and so much to do that when we go to an issue, we need to stay on the issue and deal with it, vote, and then move on to the next issue,” Frist said in an interview last week. The Democrats’ obstruction, he said, “is not in the nation’s interest. I don’t know how people will react to it, but the Senate’s moving forward.”

Of course, whether the Senate is actually moving forward depends on whom you ask.

Must-pass spending bills in the Senate certainly are not moving, since Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) decided to cancel a slew of committee markups last week. Stevens said he did not want to proceed with the nine spending bills that have not even seen subcommittee action until Democrats agree to his request — which is unprecedented — to limit floor debate on measures they have yet to even see.

And despite having what should have been a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority in favor of a class-action bill last week, Frist used a procedural maneuver to block Members of both parties from offering amendments, because of news reports that Democrats wanted to offer numerous “message” amendments unrelated to sending more class-action lawsuits to federal court. The bill failed to get the needed 60 votes to move forward — despite having 62 co-sponsors.

“How do they expect to get anything done if they close every ability to offer an amendment?” Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of Frist’s tactics. “Even [Sen.] Larry Craig [R-Idaho] said it was the wrong thing to do, and he’s one of the most team-playing Republicans I’ve ever met.”

In the meantime, a constitutional amendment that would effectively bar gay marriage is headed for ample debate and likely defeat this week, leaving only about a week of legislative opportunities before Members head home for their six-week August recess, which will be capped on both ends by the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions.

“You can’t slow something down that’s not moving,” quipped Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.).

Despite all the talk of Democratic obstruction, Senate GOP leaders almost uniformly agreed it would be better to argue that Republicans can get things done, regardless of Democratic roadblocks.

“I always believe it’s best to get things done,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). “We have a record of successes, and we’re going to continue on that record of successes. And we’re also going to articulate when the Democrats are blocking things that are important to the American people.”

As for the ability of Republicans to succeed legislatively before the November elections, Lott said it was imperative for Republicans to pass the highway bill (which has been stymied by Republican infighting), an energy bill (which has been stalled by opposition from both Republicans and Democrats), a defense appropriations bill (which is currently in conference with the House and Senate), an omnibus appropriations bill (which likely won’t make an appearance until September or October), and the corporate-tax bill (which Democrats have refused to send to conference without assurances that they’ll be included in the discussions).

“If we don’t get those five things done, our quiver is not going to have any arrows in it,” Lott said. “Now is the time when you have to be a warrior. Are there any warriors left here?”