All Options Must Remain on the Table, Even Reconciliation

Posted March 30, 2009 at 3:50pm

It is budget week on Capitol Hill, which means the battle over who gets to set the nation’s spending priorities, and by how much, is in full swing. The “victor— in this battle will set the tone for the remainder of the 111th Congress and the president’s first two years in office.

[IMGCAP(1)]Most, but not all, Democrats would like to see President Barack Obama’s top policy priorities enacted sometime this year. Health care, clean energy and improved education, Democrats argue, will help the nation recover from one of the worst economic downturns in a generation and put the country on the road to shared prosperity for all.

Republicans, and a very small handful of Democrats, disagree. They argue that the president’s budget priorities and the price tag attached to them will lead to an economic Armageddon.

The fight is on, and it’s going to get a lot more heated now that House Republicans have issued their budgetary blueprint — albeit without a price tag.

Democrats must do two things simultaneously. First, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) suggested, they must work with Republicans, forcing them, if necessary, to come to the negotiating table. Second, with or without Republicans, they must continue to move forward on their sound plan to put the country on a more sustainable path to fiscal health.

Centrist Democrats, like progressives, were sent to Capitol Hill to help middle-class Americans by championing issues such as health care and clean energy. They need not abandon the president’s priorities or the party’s principles simply because the Republican opposition has threatened to filibuster. The country is eager for the change and new direction promised by their newly elected president and Democratic majority in Congress.

Perhaps inspired by Jimmy Stewart’s heroic filibuster in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,— armchair quarterbacks have started to ramp up the pressure on Senate Democrats to force Republicans to make good on their threats to stage dramatic filibusters if the Democrats use the reconciliation process to enact the president’s signature policies with 51 votes instead of the usual 60. This idea is better suited for Hollywood than Washington.

From the New York Times editorial page to Twitter, advocates have argued that the specter of such a spectacle against a popular president’s party in today’s cable news environment would surely force Senate Republicans to compromise. If the GOP plays the filibuster card, they reason, the majority should call its bluff.

I don’t agree, though I understand their frustration. It is one shared by the American people, who in November gave eight Republican Senate seats to Democrats — after the GOP shattered the all-time record for filibusters with a gleeful abandon that would make Barry Bonds blush.

But making the minority party walk the walk after talking the talk about shutting down the Senate is simply not practical. Unlike the movie, one does not need to rant indefinitely to sustain a filibuster. According to Senate rules, a Member simply has to note that the number of Senators required to conduct business is not present on the floor and ask for repeated quorum calls.

Rather than listening to an exhausted Senator reading from a telephone book, television cameras would most likely capture a nearly empty and silent chamber. As every C-SPAN viewer knows, that’s not exactly the kind of melodramatic circus that would shame the majority into submission.

The only way to avoid the filibuster, some argue, is to abolish it altogether. But that option would require rewriting rules that have protected minority rights in the Senate since the founding of the republic. The Senate rejected that option in 2005, when then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) floated the “nuclear— option. And it should remain off the table.

There is no question that the filibuster is occasionally abused. However, the benefits of protecting minority rights with this device far outweigh the risks of eliminating it. As uncomfortable as it may seem, we should keep the filibuster rule and prepare for a lengthy process to put in motion the president’s budgetary policies.

Reid, now weighing whether to use fast-track budget rules for President Barack Obama’s budget priorities, is wise to not engage in a game of chicken on the Senate floor. Political advantage is a fleeting thing, and those who currently enjoy the majority understand that the minority rights they are protecting today may someday be their own.

The knives are out. Let’s hope they are used to cut the deficit rather than cut off debate before there has been a complete airing of views, a vote on any alternatives offered by the minority and a resolution to move forward with enacting the president’s priorities. But Harry Reid must not surrender — all options should remain on the table.

Note: This is the last of my biweekly columns for Roll Call. From time to time, I will return to these pages to offer my opinion and analysis. It has been one of my greatest honors to work with the excellent editors and staff of Roll Call, which has been and always will be one of my favorite must-read newspapers. I shall forever remain a loyal and devoted reader and subscriber.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.