By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
At least, as President Obama showed last week, you can talk to the House Republicans and have a decent policy conversation. Not so the band of 40 Senate Republicans--soon to become 41, with Scott Brown of Massachusetts joining their ranks today.
Sweet reason just ain't their cup of tea.
I am not excusing the Senate Democrats when I say the Senate Republicans are a truly intransigent group under the genteel veneer. A closer look at the way they have bottled up the nation's business shows they are breaking the spirit of fair play, with our republic getting more fragile by the day. It has never been quite this bad before, which is why the American people don't know a strong-willed minority of lawmakers is actively stopping and making naught of legislation, pressing as it may be. My colleague and editor Robert Schlesinger has explained the fallacy of the Senate filibuster in this space crisply and clearly, pointing out that a so-called "supermajority" of 60 is considered necessary for even an up or down vote. That is how the Senate Democrats passed a healthcare bill by the skin of their teeth late last year. Yet even before Brown painted his state crimson, the yearlong effort had languished and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy never saw the cause of his life signed into law.
Reader, let me be more specific. Right now, 40 senators representing only 26 states are holding our national destiny in their hands. Collectively, they are strangling President Obama's legislative agenda without giving it a chance to be aired or voted upon on the floor. Personally, I think the meek Democrats must show more fight, call the honorable gentlemen's bluff and actually make Republicans filibuster until dawn if that's the way they want to play the game. Then the American people can see just who is obstructing what and why. That would be transparency, not the clubby Senate's strong suit. What's more, these 26 states include sparsely populated places like Wyoming and Idaho, and several Southern states with political histories full of hurt, like South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama. Texas, predictably, is by far the largest state with two Republican senators. Other states with solely Republican representation are small to medium size in the number of people, though a handful have a large land mass. They include Oklahoma, Utah, Kansas, and Kentucky. These states are simply not in step with the American electorate, yearning to see some measure of progress since 2008.
For the first time, Obama signaled he knows Senate Republicans are living on their own reservation. So he complimented the House for voting and passing certain bills in his State of the Union speech, while pointing up the failure of the Senate, a.k.a. "the upper chamber"--to act on the same bills, left in limbo. That is a rare bird in winter, a president blaming the Senate publicly, while praising the "People's House." President Harry S. Truman simply criticized the "do-nothing Congress." A hard-headed politician, Obama has now registered that the Republicans really don't wish him well and refuse to cooperate with him. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, seen as the moderate in their midst, did not melt all summer when it really counted on healthcare legislation. In fact, not one Republican crossed over to the other side when the chips were down on the most important domestic social reform in a generation.
To complete the Senate math, at present, Democrats represent 36 states, 10 more than the Republicans. Just as important, states that sent two Democrats to Washington tend to have a much richer mix of cities, suburbs, universities, industries, and farmland. (I am counting the two independents in the Democratic caucus.) Among those with two Democratic senators are Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, California, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Senators from those states, especially Michigan, bring a sober perspective on joblessness out there in the nation's cities and heartland. To be sure, a dozen states have one Republican and one Democrat, such as Ohio--always a reliable bellwether of where the nation is headed. Granted, Ohio is closely divided. But Ohio also voted for Obama.
The Senate needs to act a little--or a lot--more like America. The Republicans' old band of brothers (37 men, three women) need to realize how out of step they are and how relatively few they speak for---before the rest of us do.