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Hostage situation in the United States Senate

[I]magine there's a big meeting with every member of the Democratic caucus in both chambers. You stand at the front of the room and make a presentation: "If health care reform falls apart after having come this far, tens of millions of Americans will suffer; costs will continue to soar; the public will perceive Democrats as too weak and incompetent to act on their own agenda; the party will lose a lot of seats in the midterms and possibly forfeit its majority; and President Obama will have suffered a devastating defeat that will severely limit his presidency going forward. No one will even try to fix the dysfunctional system again for decades, and the existing problems will only get worse."

For progressive Democrats, the response would be, "That's an unacceptable outcome, which we have to avoid."

For conservative Democrats, the response would be, "We can live with failure."

This necessarily affects negotiations. One contingent wants to avoid failure; the other contingent considers failure a satisfactory outcome. Both sides know what the other side is thinking.

That's Steve Benen, describing the dynamic in the Senate. As I've said before, I think a lot of folks imagine this as a negotiation, in which both sides want to get to yes, and so everyone is involved in a complex game to signal their comfort with failure in order to strengthen their ultimate bargaining position. But that's not an accurate depiction of the process.

If this is comparable to any form of negotiation, it's a hostage negotiation. The hostage-takers might not prefer to kill the kid, but there's definitely some upside to killing the kid, as it strengthens them in future negotiations. Conversely, the people on the other side of the phone don't want the kid to die, but also don't want a situation in which hostage-taking is encouraged. Generally, you try and resolve that by killing or capturing the hostage-takers, but that's not really an option here, with the closest analogue being a kamikaze primary challenge against Blanche Lincoln, which would come too late to affect health-care reform anyway.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 23, 2009; 4:35 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

You sound increasingly bummed lately... Wish I disagreed with a word of this analysis, but those sure sound like the dynamics of the situation to me.

If Joe Lieberman gave a damn about the tens of millions of people without health insurance and the tens of thousands who die every year as a result (choose your research), he would have DONE something over the past 25 years to solve the problem. Ditto for Lincoln, Landrieu, Nelson, Snowe, Collins, et al.

Their priorities are displayed by their records. Somehow they've found a way to make sure millionaires can keep avoiding paying inheritance taxes!

Posted by: bcamarda2 | November 23, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree. It is a hostage situation, you go out and you spend 22 months electing a liberal president, a majority in the House and Senate, only to discover that the entire agenda depends on the feelings of Blanche Lincoln (D-Walmart) or Olympia Snowe.

To wit, we probably wont get this health care reform bill, wont get a deal on energy, immigration reform will fail again. God bless America!!

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 23, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Some of us recognized this dynamic as it began to unfold just before the August recess, when Baucus failed to deliver his committee's vote and when Senate Republicans declared they'd make healthcare reform Obama's "Waterloo." The tea-party craziness in August strengthened this dynamic by spooking moderates like Ross and Castle in the House and Lincoln and Snowe in the Senate. The most frustrating parts, of course, have been the President's laconic approach, the administration's mixed messages on a public option, etc. Unlike Ezra or Yglesias, I have never for one nano-second thought the President was powerless to influence the sausage-making and to shape the political debate.

One thing I'll say for the GOP: early on they figured out Obama's Achilles' heel -- his unswerving commitment to his persona as a post-partisan healer, his fatuous self-regard and squeamishness about fighting hand-to-hand combat with Republicans. By positioning himself as the anti-Clinton and anti-Bush, Obama may be denied what both of his predecessors achieved: a second term.

Posted by: scarlota | November 23, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

What is the saddest thing long term is that this was the *easy* one. We have grave issues facing our country. The other party wants to keep doing what drove us off the cliff because they and their backers have done okay by looting the country. We have Conservative Democrats in the middle who really don't care that we're heading off the cliff. We have Corporate Democrats who will fly in corporate directions when it serves their backers needs. And we have a mass of Frightened Democrats who, even after two strong congressional results and a landslide in the Presidental election are scared of their own shadow by all sorts of bogeymen that are out there.

People keep saying this, and it's 100% true: the country is headed in the political direction that California has led.

There is no positive endgame to any of this. Our system is heading towards cracking. The worst signs are from the past 8 years where Congress largely abdicated to an incompotent Admin that strong armed them and spooked them left and right after a terrible event. Worse, the media and country as a whole was largely willing to let the expansion of power take place. Sometime in the next 25-50 years we'll have another terrible even, and the Executive branch will steamroll the other two branches, and likely be enabled by them as well. We'll be a banana republic.

With some luck it will be closer to 50 and I'll be safely dead. It's depressing enough for someone who became politically aware during Watergate and the withdraw from Viet Nam to see that we've come full cicle in my lifetime... only worse. The path from here is becoming obvious, tragic and even more depressing.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | November 23, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't agree with the assessment that if Obama doesn't pass some kind of health care reform bill, then Democrats will lose big in the midterms and in the next presidential election. That assessment was based on the perceived losses that Clinton suffered. The climate now is such that Democrats are positioned to lose big because of the economy. Jobs are the number one issue; not health insurance reform, um, i mean health care reform. While health insurance is an issue, it's the loss of jobs and no prescription for how to put low income Americans back to work that will ultimately decide whether Democrats remain in power. Think shades of Jimmy Carter.

Posted by: goadri | November 23, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

If a Senator can't support an expanded government role in healthcare of all things, then why the hell is he or she a member of the Democratic Party? Serious question. The party has changed a hell of a lot in the last 60 years, but this has been perhaps THE constant thread. Not even civil rights or immigration reform have as storied a history in this party as universal healthcare. Saying "I'm willing to live with that" should simply not be acceptable, and it's a sad indication of the complete degradation of the Democratic brand.

Imagine if this were the Republicans with a 60 vote majority and a bill in front of them to cut taxes and massively expand the federal deficit. Or to go to war. Or to limit access to abortion. Can you even imagine a "hostage situation" there? Would any of them dare? Ask "maverick" John McCain about his stance of climate change these days...

No matter what happens in the next few months, this process has to inform liberals' actions moving forward. The persistent theme through this whole process is that a once-popular Democratic President, the Democratic base, and major Democratic funders have little to no real leverage over rogue Senators. That needs to change. If anything, that needs to come before we start talking about climate change, because the consequences of failure THERE could be catastrophic -- it's better not to even try than to pass a bad, Nelson/Baucus/Lincoln-screwed bill on it.

Posted by: NS12345 | November 23, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

It is certainly a hostage situation when talking about democrats filibustering a majority from their own party. Harkin says he has at least 52 votes for the bill as is with a PO, but 4 0r 5 dems saying they will vote to obstruct an up or down vote is just a sorry state of affairs. And I don't think "hostage" situation is the best term. More like mutiny of the highest order on Obama's and dems signature issue and one favored by most Americans. I am mostly a moderate dem, and I support individual dem congress persons to vote the way they want. But not to filibuster their own dern party.

And it doesn't help for Schumer and other liberals to say WE HAVE to pass SOME bill. That just gives the mutineers comfort to carry on.

But I never expected a bill with government involvement in Health insurance, more than what exists currently, to pass by regular order. Reconciliation was always the perilous journey to get that part of reform into law imho/ And I am hoping that all this dancing around is just to get to that point of last resort to justify using it to the public.

Posted by: arnold104 | November 23, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Ezra sounds bummed. Disillusioned I would say. It's like the first time you get poked in the eye with a sharp stick.

Last year "they" wanted me to transcend my cynicism and vote for change. Well, here we have it. Held hostage by the Walton Family's pet poodle. And that's after we got held up by a New Orleans hooker for $300 million.

If I can make it 2 more years I can head for the hills and leave this mess to somebody else.

Regards.

Posted by: luko | November 23, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

If Solomon were looking down at all of this, he might indeed see two parties claiming a child, one by grace and the other by seizure. The last time he was confronted by such a situation, I recall him determining the rightful parent to be the one that was willing to give the child up to the other rather than see the child killed.

The hostage-taking analogy seems to fit, but to me implies a need for increased concession: conceding the bothersome portions of the reform proposal and propounding the remainder might save the measure.

Posted by: rmgregory | November 23, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

This is crazy, there's a simple way the entire party can avoid being held hostage by a few centrists. Adopt republican-style committee management and threaten to strip filibustering democrats of their chairmanships. Lieberman and Lincoln are both heading committees that mean a hell of a lot more to them than blocking health care reform. I mean, Lincoln couldn't even be bothered to update the healthcare page on here website.

I get that many Senators are reluctant to curb their own authority, but surely many senators, young and old, are starting to realize that they are continually going to be held hostage by a group of 5 or 6 centrists. How do supporters of climate change legislation expect to pass a meaningful bill if they can't stop centrists from filibustering.

The democrats have a real opportunity here to use healthcare as an excuse to enact some meaningful procedural reform. If that reform then goes on to help climate change and/or financial reform legislation go through, the party will be in a lot better shape then if everything ends up floundering.

Posted by: eerac | November 23, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

"Adopt republican-style committee management and threaten to strip filibustering democrats of their chairmanships."

Ding ding ding.

They're squatting on these positions like feudal lords. If they're so willing to put their own grandstanding over the good of their party, they've proven themselves unworthy of these DISCRETIONARY positions.

Posted by: NS12345 | November 23, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

"The hostage-taking analogy seems to fit, but to me implies a need for increased concession: conceding the bothersome portions of the reform proposal and propounding the remainder might save the measure."

Radical compromise having been such a fruitful strategy thus far in the debate...

Posted by: NS12345 | November 23, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

So what if Lieberman kills it? This bill isn't going to help most middle class families. The health industry has been shopping the same grand bargain for years as a way to expand their revenue base. If it doesn't pass now, President Romney will pass essentially the same bill and that will actually be a better outcome for Democrats because then it will be truly bipartisan.

Posted by: bmull | November 23, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Booman asks an interesting question
"But, it's the conservative Democrats who are most likely to lose their jobs. So, is there something missing from this example? "
http://tinyurl.com/y8ev35u

Now one reply is that Nelson, Lieberman and Landrieux are not up for re-elction. Notably the blue dogs in the House didn't block the bill. But what about Lincoln ? Does she really think she can survive if the Democrats fail to reform health care ?

I have another theory of what is going on. Evan Bayh argued that 50 senators plus Biden could create a public option via reconciliation. I think the conservadems would really like reconciliation. It would give them an option to denounce their party and prove their independence (plus they really seem to enjoy it).

Reid is saying he will not use reconciliation. Is that a promise or a threat ?

Posted by: rjw88 | November 23, 2009 10:25 PM | Report abuse

If you're saying that Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman need to be grabbed off the street and chained up in a basement somewhere in DC, I'm finding it hard to argue against it.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 24, 2009 2:41 AM | Report abuse

"There is no positive endgame to any of this. Our system is heading towards cracking."

I think this is the most significant point, which is mapped to such different voices as Matt Taibbi and Jamie Galbraith.

The US is structurally ungovernable in the popular interest.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 24, 2009 2:45 AM | Report abuse

It has been more effective to spend the money bribing reluctant "moderates" than to feed them that ridiculous fairy tale that they were defeated in '94 because they FAILED to pass healthcare. Exactly how does that one compute? That people wanted nationalized healthcare, so they went and voted in large numbers for its opponents? It's a fun fact that Clinton was brought up to congress this one last time to -- spout a made up tale, to lie. Just continue to get the needed votes by bribery, but quit insulting people's intelligence.

Posted by: truck1 | November 24, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

I think its pretty amazing that liberals just want to see any healthcare plan passed no matter what and there is no room in their view for someone to say "I support healthcare reform but this bill sucks". Even many supporters of this bill know that in the end it sucks and I think its funny that they still expect people to support it no matter what.

Posted by: spotatl | November 24, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

It's only the unpopularity of the bill that enables senators like Landrieu to extract bribes for voting for it. She, and others, are getting paid to run the risk of not being re-elected if they vote for it.

Posted by: truck1 | November 24, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Killing their careers is acceptable. Even laudable.

Don't hold your breath.

Carolyn Kay
MakeThemAccountable.com

Posted by: CaroKay | November 24, 2009 7:25 PM | Report abuse

spineless Democrats and Blue Dogs are all paid for by the Villagers to keep the pony show going, while they enjoy the Opera.

When have the Democrats done anything when they had the opportunity? other than bow to the Republicans. lol

Obama is going to lose way lot more than a 2nd term. He's been had. The Democrats, Blue Dogs deserve to be challenged wherever. Blue Dogs/Republican-lite is not a Democrat. Follow the money.

We all get to see what Waterloo looks like for Obama. Hopefully, the house of cards will come crashing down sooner than later.

Between the Axis of Greed (Republicans) and the amoral sycophant, corporate, and spineless Democrats, America loses on all account. except the haves and the have mores.

Posted by: BernardEckholdt | November 24, 2009 11:34 PM | Report abuse

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