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A tale of two compromises


For all the flak Ben Nelson gets, the process of pulling him onto the bill was a lot more straightforward than what Joe Lieberman required. Nelson, for better or worse, compromised. He didn't want a public option but was part of the team that developed the Medicare buy-in. He wanted Stupak-style language on abortion but didn't threaten a filibuster when it was defeated. He wanted states to opt in to the Medicaid expansion but was willing to be bought off with a lot of extra money for Nebraska. The compromises weren't all pretty, but they were all compromises, both for the Democrats and for Nelson. And all of the compromises made sense given where Nelson is coming from, and who he represents.

Lieberman, of course, didn't compromise. He made his demands and swore a filibuster if they weren't met. No amendments to vote down, or middle ground to find. And his ransom note had very little to do with the conditions of his state. There was no extra money to dole out, or ideological chasm to bridge. Tellingly, his colleague Chris Dodd had no problem voting for the public option, and nor did any of Connecticut's representatives in the House. As recently as November, polls showed majority support for the public option in Connecticut. As recently as June, Lieberman himself supported Medicare buy-in. That's probably why Harry Reid didn't even credit the initial signs of Lieberman's intransigence as serious. "Joe Lieberman is the least of [my] problems," he said.

But this process suggested that Democrats are going to have a lot more trouble with Lieberman than Nelson in the coming years. Nelson is more conservative than the rest of the caucus, but his conflict was calmed in pretty traditional ways -- some money for Nebraska, some compromises on hot-button issues. Lieberman's assault was much more of kamikaze strategy, and it elicited a much angrier and uncontrollable response on the left. Relations between the left and Lieberman will be even worse going forward, but Lieberman remains the Democrats' 60th vote, and he knows it. That's a tough situation for Reid.

Photo credit: By Karin Cooper/CBS’ "Face the Nation" via Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  December 22, 2009; 9:06 AM ET
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Here's an idea: make Leiberman and his ilk actually filibuster -- you know, stand in the well of the Senate and read the D.C. phone book -- and then force through any and all future critical legislation via reconciliation. (And please spare me the sermon about just how difficult and fraught the reconcilation process is -- it couldn't be significantly worse than the agony we've all endured for months, plus it never seemed to slow Bush down when he invoked it.)

Plenty of us recognized Lieberman as a far more serious threat than Reid did, early on (or Ezra, for that matter, with his numerous posts about how history was calling Olympia Snowe to do the right thing for her country). Lieberman is taunting and baiting the Democratic party, possibly to force Reid to strip him of his chairmanship so he can finally go where he's been planning to go for a while: the GOP. He's metastasizing into a full-blown malignancy; this will not end well. 'Tis better to strategize a reconciliation strategy for future tough votes.

Posted by: scarlota | December 22, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

Your dissapointed you couldn't bribe him like the other senators you bribed?

Posted by: obrier2 | December 22, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

"But this process suggested Democrats are going to have a lot more trouble with Lieberman than Nelson in the coming years."

I think you mean "year," singular. Because Lieberman's being able to play these games is largely contingent on the Dem caucus having *exactly* 60 Senate seats. After 2010, they may have more or fewer than 60 seats, but the odds are heavily against their retaining a Senate majority of *exactly* 60 seats.

So Lieberman's window of opportunity to hijack everything started the day Franken was sworn in, and ends at the end of next year.

Posted by: rt42 | December 22, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

"And his ransom note had very little to do with the conditions of his state. There was no extra money to dole out ..."

Whatever else you might say about him, the fact that he didn't extort money for his state is a a good thing, you know.

Posted by: ostap666 | December 22, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Or the Senate could fix their ridiculous rules be done with Lieberman's hostage taking BS.

Posted by: jamusco | December 22, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

scarlota, filibusters don't work that way anymore. There's no need to do any grandstanding on the Senate floor, which is one reason there's a lot more of them now. Also, reconciliation does sound like a good thing to use as much as possible, but only when it doesn't gut the initiative in question, like it would have with health care reform. (Bush used it for things like tax cuts, which like it or not are far easier to push through the process.) I do wonder if there's any chance cap & trade could go through reconciliation but I don't claim to have the answer to that.

Posted by: Chris_O | December 22, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I do see the need for additional Democrats in the Senate which would reduce the influence of Nelson and especially Lieberman. It's why the President even with a win, needs to address the enthusiasm gap. There were no guarantees the public options would have survive to the final bill, if Obama was seen more publicly "fighting" for this reform. This insider strategy has therefore added hurt to disappointment because he was not seen publicly fighting for the bill. I don't agree with all that has been said regarding what that public fight should have looked like. But he left you with no idea where he stood which is pretty remarkable given this major legislation was moving through Congress. But the enthusiasm gap makes me think about watching a basketball game with a friend and after a shot went in the basket, he said that was a bad shot. I wondered why? Because another of the player's teammate was in a better position. If that player consistently takes shots when others are open, it will eventually affect the cohesiveness and success of the team.

The president will get a win here but how he went about it and maybe other legislation will eat away at the enthusiasm of the base and activism, money for the Democratic Party. I see Lieberman is all too happy to exploit this riff.

The fight for HCR by Obama and progressives, reminds me of the relationship between Bill Clinton and Mariam Wright Edleman. During the recent presidential race, someone wrote that Obama should thank Clinton for dealing with welfare reform. Reforms were needed, but how the changes were made, a quick dropping of recipients (supported by Bill) vs a longer/stronger transition process (Edleman)left a chasm in their relationship.

Adding to the hurt, I think, is a pattern of a lack of respect shown publicly by Obama (to legislators) and his staff (public individuals & groups) towards progressives. No one likes to be taken for granted, trust and respect help sustain a relationship during times of disagreements. I seem to recall the president saying something similar about his marriage, during the interview with Oprah. Would suggest the President give Mariam W. Edleman a call.

I still plan to fight for more Dems in the Senate. That's an uphill fight, but at least the republicans are helping, given their just say no strategy. But this growing riff concerns me.

Posted by: wshudley | December 22, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

This entire process has been frought with corruption. Our entire political process has been hijacked by elected criminals. These politicians have gotten so bad they don't even try to hide their theft of our money. They stand out in broad daylight horse trading our money for votes. If this were done in the public sector these people would be put into jail. Obama promised that he would do away with earmarks and it appears that nothing could be further from the truth. Both democrats and republicans are feeding their pet projects from the troft of the taxpayer. Buying votes for something most Americans dont want is wrong. Make no mistake about, these emarks are simply bribes and should be done away with. This argument that is business as usual needs to be exploded! Americans should recall, fire or vote out any senator that benefited through earmarks no matter what side of the isle he/she sits on! Let get some change we call live with!

Posted by: rgray222 | December 22, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Lieberman is driven entirely by ego and vengeance and the ego part of that equation depends on his being part of the majority party. Putting a price tag on his continuance in his chairmanship and his committee assignments is not unreasonable. Either he quits the caucus or he doesn't. I don't think he will. That won't suit his ego. But even if he does, so what? Giving in entirely to Olympia Snowe in the finance committee would have done significantly less damage than giving in to Joe Lieberman.

If Reid truly didn't see this coming, he's a fool.

Posted by: pj_camp | December 22, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

"And his ransom note..."

nice touch, so true and so telling about who and what the guy is...

Posted by: hughmaine | December 22, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Is there ANY way that the filibuster can be changed, or are we stuck with Lieberman as the 60th vote forever? Does anyone know?

Posted by: LiberalForReal | December 22, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Figuring out what to make of Lieberman is beyond me, but Nelson is in fact a hero, even though he became one in a way he probably doesn't yet comprehend.

Both men had to be bribed or bought off to get the sixty votes needed to get a simple up or down vote in the end. You know, that mythical thing the republicans invented over Alito and Roberts. Yet there was more reason to believe that that filibuster would have some success, hence the threatened nuclear option. It should have been obvious to the Republicans from the start that the Dems would finagle cloture when necessary, even when it cost them credibility. So a process that should have taken perhaps four months took nine. Other work Congress could have been doing got held up so that this work, of much higher priority, could get done.

So when Nelson dickered for all this cash for cloture, he set an example. Had the Republicans NOT gone the full court cloture route, the cumshaw would not have been necessary, because the Dems DON'T need either Lieberman Or Nelson to pass the bill, they only needed them to get the bill to a vote.

The Republicans tacked lots of cost on the bill, and did not profit in the least from the kidnapping. But Nelson got his social emollients, got his palm lightly massaged with the milk of political suasion.

The Republicans got to look childish, petty, and pre-cindy-who grintchy. Will their hearts EVER return to more human size?

Will the Republicans ever match John Wayne and get the sun to set in the East?

Posted by: ceflynline | December 22, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

"Here's an idea: make Leiberman and his ilk actually filibuster -- you know, stand in the well of the Senate and read the D.C. phone book -- and then force through any and all future critical legislation via reconciliation. Posted by: scarlota"

No, sir, by all means keep the filibuster as it is, (Except that making the side doing the filibustering put some real effort into it is a good tactic, WHEN the Senate has the time to indulge in making the minority work for its obstructionism.) What changed wasn't the requirement that a Party actually filibuster, what changed was the decision to invoke cloture at the START of a filibuster, and not well into one. Forty Senators spelling each other to talk a bill to death, for weeks or months, is a luxury we couldn't afford this year. So insytead of waiting for a full blown filibuster to rise and stall the Senate, we accepted the threat as the fact and shut it down early.

What all the filibuster fuss was really about, and how it can be presented, was the Republicans trying to repudiate the electorate for its own desires. They went into the process knowing that the significant majority of Americans wanted, and still basically want, affordable health care for all, knew that is much of what got Obama and company elected, and decided that it was politically a good thing to deny the country what it wanted to strengthen its own political fortunes. Every candidate not running as a Republican should be out there campaigning on exactly that fact. The Party of nine months of nein needs to be billed for its damages to the nation. twelve seats in the Senate next year, and twenty to thirty in the House will be a nice first payment on a long and costly mortgage.

Elections DO have consequences.

Posted by: ceflynline | December 22, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

I'll say it every time Lieberman is called the "60th vote": If Lieberman did not compromise, then by definition, he is not the 60th vote. He promised to vote against the bill. That is not a vote.

The bill he finally voted yes for is not the same bill. You could get James Inhofe to vote for a different bill, but that doesn't make him the 60th vote.

Posted by: dpurp | December 22, 2009 10:10 PM | Report abuse

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