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Bipartisan processes that don't lead to bipartisan votes


One of the most important, but hardest to convey, realities of the legislative process right now is that we're seeing much more substantive bipartisanship even as we're getting much fewer bipartisan votes. Financial regulation is a good example: Chris Dodd's legislative proposal is worlds away from the muscular vision of his first draft. Those changes were mostly at the behest of Tennessee's Bob Corker. As Corker said, "this last month" -- when Corker was negotiating with Dodd -- "has helped produce a far better product."

But will Corker support that product? Well, no.

Same goes for health-care reform. The final Senate bill was a lot closer to the Gang of Six's bill -- the one that Olympia Snowe voted for in committee -- than to the House or HELP Committee's bills. But will Snowe, Grassley, Enzi, or any other Senate Republican vote for the bill? Well, no.

Republicans aren't just getting some technical amendments passed into these proposals. They're helping to design the entire architecture. They're securing long negotiation processes that give them much more input than your median committee Democrat. And then they're abandoning the final draft. The underlying dynamic here is pretty simple: Because so few Republicans are willing to be bipartisan, there's no competition from other Republicans to be the guy with the commemorative pen when the bill is signed. That means that it's harder for the Democrat to walk from one Republican and find someone else, which in turn means the Republican they are negotiating with has a lot more leverage.

The result has been final, partisan products that are much more compromised then their bipartisan predecessors. Medicare got a dozen or so Republican votes and was a single-payer health-care system. The post-New Deal financial regulations were also more bipartisan, and were also much more aggressive than what Dodd is proposing. But the Democrats behind these compromised pieces of legislation don't get any credit for compromising. Instead, they just get hammered for all the weaknesses in the bill -- weaknesses that were added to secure Republican support that never materialized.

The interesting question is why Democrats don't toss out their compromises when they lose their potential co-sponsors. The answer, I think, is a mixture of conservative Democrats and industry, but it's hard for them to explain that.

Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 17, 2010; 2:03 PM ET
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Forget bipartisanship. I want to see *post-partisanship* (meaning, fair play).

Regarding FinReg I think that *both* Democrats and Republicans are captured by Wall Street.

To prove me wrong, Ezra could you challenge Senator Dodd to parse each provision of his bill in "plain" English on YouTube (yes we have all day), and explain exactly what problem it is trying to solve, and why he thinks that is the best solution.

Posted by: msa_intp | March 17, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse


there are a whole mess of new taxes in the healthcare bill that makes it pretty anti-Republican. Now i'm not saying that's right but remember because of that Dems peeled off exactly one Senator (Snowe).

And what was the one thing that Ms. Snowe wanted? Cost controls. They were (or are to be) weakened even further to buy votes via a weakening of the excise tax.

Remember she also reserved the right to not vote for the final product if she didn't like it. I'm guessing she still doesn't like it.

But then again many Dems don't like it either. That's why they're whipping votes and its going to be a nail biter.

If the house went all liberal on us and stomped their feet and said "Senate, sign our bill" Do you think you'd be able to do that, even under reconciliation? If they thought they could they'd have done that already.

The end game is that IF this passes (and I hope even for all its warts that it does) it'll have the slimmest of majorities in the House and just slightly larger ones in the Senate.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 17, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Visionbrkr, it seems to me that Republicans are unwilling to vote for any bill that isn't essentially a Republican bill. The notion of bipartisanship or compromise doesn't mean you're going to love the final product. In fact, since everyone has to give up something they like and accept something the other side likes, it's entirely possible that the final product isn't going to leave many people feeling great about it.

As to Ezra's post, I just don't understand why the majority can't put forward two bills. In one bill they put in all the policies they think will do the most good and which can get 50% +1 votes. For the other they have long meetings with the minority members. They argue and compromise back and forth until they've produced a bipartisan bill. Then the second bill is put to a vote with the minority party going first. If some sufficient number of the minority party doesn't vote for the bill, it's killed. Then the first bill comes down for a vote.

Presumably the majority will have crafted the first bill so that it passes after the second bill is scrapped, even if it's a party-line vote.

Posted by: MosBen | March 17, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

What concerns me is that the Democrats don't get credit from the "independent" voters for their bipartisanship. The GOP is winning the messaging battle, as the Democrats seems to be having a "hard time explaining" just about everything. The deem and pass episode is just another distraction from substance, feeding into the GOP's narrative.

Posted by: jduptonma | March 17, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse


I didn't say they (Republicans) were reasonable. I'm just reminding Ezra of the process back in October. And technically it is a Republican 1994 bill pretty much. Its pretty much "RomneyCare" give or take.

And yes they can absolutely do as you suggest and put forth two bills (heck they put together 4 or 5, no?). The question ends up being if its a party line vote then Dems must take the bad (future premium cost increases due to little or no cost controls) as well as the good (end to pre-ex, recision etc.)

You can't pick and choose that. You've got to own it 100%.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 17, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Ezra, you got this wrong.

This is a classic case of regulatory capture. As has even been repeated by members of Congress, "Special Interests own the place." This is the bill Dodd wants because this is the bill his Masters want. Both parties have been involved in crafting the perfect bill for their Masters. This is convenient because in the end it gives both parties cover.

Both parties ignoring the interests/will of the people while serving those who pay them.
In other words, Business as usual.

Posted by: bradleyssmith | March 17, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

For the first year of his presidency, Obama, enthralled by his own myth as a transformational healer and convinced that his election signaled the demise of Nixonland, dialed the political agenda to "Republican Lite." The Washington Dems followed his lead, for good reason -- he's the head of the party. What has he gotten in return? He's enraged the base, watered down any effective policy initiatives, plummeted in his ratings, emboldened the most insane elements of the GOP, and won virtually no Republican votes.

This is what you get when you fail to learn the lessons of Nixonland -- and as Rick Perlstein notes, our partisan divide will continue for at least another generation.

P.S. By the way, we forget this now since everyone from E. J. Dionne rightward bathes our 40th President in the glow of hagiography, but as Perlstein traces back to the California gubernatorial race of '66, there was no more aggressive partisan than Ronald Reagan. In many ways Nixon learned from him, and not the other way around.

Posted by: scarlota | March 17, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

I hate to say this, but I think that conservadems are hiding behind the skirts of repiglicans, covertly approving of the bill being weakened without actually coming out and saying that they want to weaken the bill. It is shameful for conservadems to not tell their constituents what they support and what they want to change in bills, by letting repiglicans carry their water.

Posted by: srw3 | March 17, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

@VB:You've got to own it 100%.

That is the problem. Dems end up owning the crappy compromises in the bill, ie no public option, no stand alone CFPA, no glass-steigel, no capping the size of financial institutions, no effective regulation of the OTC markets that drove the financial sector off the cliff, no reform of the rating agencies. I assume none of this is in there, or I would have seen it reported. I didn't read the bill.

As I said above, it is mostly conservadems that are supporting the watering down of the bills while hiding behind republicans. This is one of the problems with a party with a real diversity of opinions from conservative to center left. Repiglicans don't have this problem because they have become a reactionary right wing party based mostly in the old confederacy and mountain west. There is no ideological diversity left in the repiglican party of today, with the possible exception of scott brown.

Posted by: srw3 | March 17, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I am not a member of an organized political party, I'm a Democrat.--will rogers.

Also, the dem leadership has no stomach for enforcing any party discipline through witholding plum committee chairs and assignments from those who vote against the leadership position. This would never be tolerated in the republican party. In fact, I can't remember a time when republicans tried to break a filibuster when republican senators voted with the minority, but holy joe, big ben, bye bayh, and blanche all threatened to to get stuff changed in HCR. Republicans don't tolerate that kind of behavior.

Posted by: srw3 | March 17, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Dems want cover to do what industry wants.

That's what R's are happy to provide, but they don't want to provide votes. It's perfect, if you want to screw people.

That said, our other option is not votes to 'help people less than we could', but instead 'literally attack people'.

We've chosen the non-lethal poison for now, but when people get frustrated they will again vote for the lethal poison -- hoping it'll be different. Definition of insanity and all that....

Posted by: rat-raceparent | March 17, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse


aah the fun of being in the majority.

In the past I wouldn't even call them Conservadems. They're dems in republican districts. RepubliDems. They couldn't run as Republicans because of Bush but now they're pegged so tightly to the fence they're slipping the other way due to the perceived over-regulation.

I'd add Ron Paul to that list and I'm sure some others as I don't follow all the individual politicians that closely. But like a train wreck the squeaky wheel gets the grease (Bachmann) Your problem with the Republican party generates from the leadership I'd expect. Get rid of the Boehner and McConnell's of the group and it'll settle down I'd think.

If I were a Dem strategist that wanted to get things done I'd target each of them hard when the next elections come around for each of them.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 17, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

You forgot to mention Graham playing the same "slow before no" gambit on Cap'n Trade. The similarities on these three (Gang of Six, Corker, and Graham) is just blindingly obvious.

Posted by: someBrad | March 17, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

VB, I was thinking more of the senate, where the real bottleneck on legislation is. The house has passed 10x as many bills, almost all of them more progressive than anything the senate has done. Nelson, Bayh, lincoln have all been dumbocrats since before Bush, so they don't get a pass there. They want it both ways: get dem votes without actually helping dems govern. Holy Joe is his own brand of slimy, weasel faced, power hungry, backstabbing, two-faced, flip flopping, crap flinging, hypocritical, moron who wouldn't accept that he doesn't have the support of democrats in his home state. But I digress....

Posted by: srw3 | March 17, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Yup. It's regulatory capture. It's not a mystery- why should Dems make huge concessions in return for no votes, for no support? It's so they can keep their paymasters happy.


Posted by: Lonepine | March 17, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse


you're right but you honestly can't think that a progressive like a Kucinich type could ever win in Nebraska, Indiana or Arkansas do you? Conservadems are the closest you're going to get. If you'd rather have a right wing nut job then be my guest.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 17, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Aside from the cynical theory that the Dems are using the Republicans and attempts at bipartisanship as a foil to water down their legislation at the behest of their corporate overlords, is there in fact another explanation as to why they would compromise on their principles and delay the process for months on end in exchange for zero votes? If Corker doesn't vote for it, then why not just rescind the compromises and pass stricter regulations that Dodd claims to want? It makes NO sense whatsoever.

Posted by: thephantomblot | March 17, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse


There is nothing cynical about these propositions.

1. Members of Congress are intelligent.
2.Lobbyists are paid to represent the interests of their clients.
3.Members of Congress spend more time listening to lobbyists than they do to constituents in their home states.
4. Corporations give money to the candidates that they think will represent their interests the best.

If members of Congress are intelligent, spend a great deal of time listening to lobbyists who represent specific industries, and are elected with completely legal corporate donations, it should not be a surprise to anyone when legislation reflects the interests of lobbyists and corporations.

Likewise, it is no surprise to me that members of both houses of Congress would conflate the interests of industry with the interests of ordinary people when those interests diverge.

This is because while huge amounts of money are necessary to elect an official they are not sufficient. In addition to cash, politician need the votes of ordinary people. Ordinary people give their votes to the politician that they perceive is operating on their behalf.

None of this is cynical. It is a simple description of what is.

Posted by: bradleyssmith | March 17, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

You just explained why I may not vote again. And I've voted at each opportunity since I turned 21 in 1962. Remember what the lady said when asked if she voted: "No. It just encourages them."

Posted by: golewso | March 17, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

visionbrkr, I agree with your second to last post. I just wish there was a way to say at the start of negotiations: "Ok, we want to have bipartisan bill, but if no Republicans are going to vote for it, we're going to have a Democratic backup bill that we'll pass." So they'd negotiate a bipartisan bill but then force the Republicans to vote first for it. If they don't get to, say, ten Republican votes in the Senate (or some corresponding amount in the House), the voting stops and the bill is sidelined in favor of the Democratic bill which is designed to get 50% +1 votes and no more.

If you're going to have to own the bill 100%, as Dems will have to do with HCR, it'd be nice to have a bill that doesn't seem like it's so full of fruitless attempts to draw Republicans in.

C'est la vie. I just wish there was a mechanism to make the minority party vote first.

Posted by: MosBen | March 17, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

“In his De Res Publica, Cicero endeavoured so to balance the power of the people by the authority of the Senate, that the one should enact, but the other advise; the one have the last appeal, and the other the chief influence. “For (says he) when the Senate is the regulator of public opinion, we find from this distribution of rights, namely, of authority to the Senate, and of power to the people, that the state is maintained in equilibrium and harmony. This was the old constitution of Rome, by which it raised itself to all its grandeur: while all its misfortunes were owing to the contrary principle of distrust and dissension between these two rival powers.” Conyers Middleton, Life of Cicero

Posted by: misterp | March 17, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Now that Dennis "the Progressive Menace" has flip-flopped on his commitment not to vote for healthcare if it did not include a "robust public option" Obama is closer to getting his "single-payer" system! I bet that he promised Dennis that this was just the first step! And, Dennis, a guy who has seen UFO's, sold his soul for a ride on Air Force One!?!?! We are so screwed! Stand up, America!


Posted by: my4653 | March 17, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

VB: Conservadems are the closest you're going to get.
I understand that, but there also needs to be some kind of party discipline to at least support your party on procedural votes. Vote against the final substantive bill if that is what you want to do and live with the results, but don't vote against your own party on cloture. That is not too much to ask of conservadems. They voted to allow really crappy nominees to get votes in the senate during the bush times. It is inexcusable to reverse themselves now that Obama is president.

Posted by: srw3 | March 17, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

To me this shows that a good many Republicans have a reasonable, sensible understanding of our current problems and agree with 80-90% of Democratic solutions. (In other words the Republicans like the overall approach, they just disagree with some of the details.)
However they are unwilling to sign on fully with Obama or the Democrats because their (fan)base (Tea Party) has a warped view of the reality of most issues. The Republicans do not want to offend this reliable voting bloc so every chance they get to go on TV the same some silly thing about "gov't takeover" or "socialist Obamacare" to keep their fans(base) voting.
I do not mean to be an apologist for the Repubs but if you watch them on CSPAN during a committee hearing they come off as mostly very reasonable, responsible people. But when the cable "news" shows invite them on they get cue up their talking points.
So they are the classic example of having their cake and eating it too. They get significantly shape legislation and when it happens to be legislation that doesn't suit their fans, they can just vote no.

Posted by: JosephLloyd | March 17, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

@ my4653 :
Now that Dennis "the Progressive Menace" has flip-flopped on his commitment not to vote for healthcare if it did not include a "robust public option" Obama is closer to getting his "single-payer" system!

Does everyone else see the complete contradiction in this statement?

Posted by: srw3 | March 17, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Snowe voted for the Finance Cmte bill and would have voted for it on the Senate floor had not Reid taken Baucus' bill, changed it dramatically (reinserted public option and lots of other liberal ideas) and then insulted her publicly and with scorn more than once. Ironically, Snowe was a key proponent of the triggered public option. Thanks to liberals, we don't even get that.

Posted by: craig18 | March 17, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse


you know there's one way that could work but I doubt that's what he/she was thinking.

If reform doesn't happen (something I think some crazy far left progressives think would benefit single payer causes albeit at the expense of 45,000 lives per year) and we end up in 10-15 years with 60-70 million uninsured and costs MORE unsustainable then public option advocates and single payer advocates will have even more of a voice.

Again seeing how he/she explained it as some silly conspiracy I doubt that's where it was going.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 17, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse

Well, bradleyssmith, I'll put it this way: That's not how the system is SUPPOSED to work, and I think it takes a relative cynic to perceive that that's how it IS working. Now, that doesn't rule out the possibility that the cynical interpretation may well be the correct one. In fact, the point I was making is that if there is no *other* explanation for this sort of behavior, then it seems to me that the cynical one is probably right.

Posted by: thephantomblot | March 17, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

craig18, I think that's not an accurate depiction of events. Snowe stopped negotiating in good faith, and then kept moving the bar further and further rightward. When the final bill eventually had everything she claimed she wanted in a bill, she still didn't vote for it.

Posted by: thephantomblot | March 17, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Just remember a "concession" made that doesn't win the support of the other side is definitively a phoney concession. If you want me to eat a cat turd, its not a compromise to put it in a bun with pickle and a ketchup to make me feel like I'm getting a hamburger.

Democrats KNOW the secret is out. They are the most radical polarizing partisans to have ever gained so much power and they are abusing the trust of the American people. To minimize this Democrats are making photo-op concessions.

They're not conecessions at all, they are gimmicks.

How does YOUR cat turd taste? The one Pelosi is sticking in front of me right now really stinks!!!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | March 17, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

thephantomblot: Gotta disagree with you there. Reid took Baucus' bill and made significant changes and crapped on Snowe in NYT and other places. Snowe wanted to vote for this and quite frankly her idea of a triggered public option is BETTER than what the Dems will wind up with after Reid screwed her in an attempt to save his own political hide in Nevada with another futile attempt at inserting the public option

Posted by: craig18 | March 18, 2010 5:25 AM | Report abuse

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