Friday, March 20, 2009

The Big Casino

I'm a regular follower of Chris Matthew's "Hardball" show on MSNBC and learned over the years he occasionally zeroes in on a political concept that deserves merit.

On Thursday's show Matthews outlined a tactic to bypass the Senate's filibuster rules in which the Obama administration could present its entire domestic programs under the umbrella of a budget resolution.

He calls it "The Big Casino."

Think about it. All of Obama's programs on energy, health care, climate control, the economy and defense offered in one package for a simple majority up or down vote. The president describes it as his "three-legged stool" for economic recovery.

Senate rules allow such a procedure for budget considerations. It bypasses the cloister rule in which one senator can invoke forcing the threat of a filibuster. When this happens, the Senate must pass legislation by a super majority 60 votes.

This daring "all your eggs in one basket" gamble is being floated by Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, according to Matthews.

From a raw political perspective, the concept makes practical sense. Here's why:

  • The window of opportunity for new administrations to pass legislation of their liking is limited, usually to the first year. To deliberate all of Obama's programs may take several years.
  • The current reality of politics is that the Senate has 58 (59 when Al Franken is seated) Democrats, a hugely popular president and an Electoral College mandate from the last election.
  • The power of the filibuster rule in recent years has been abused by both political parties in the minority. In the past two decades, it has been invoked from as few as 12 times to 68 in 2008.

Recent passage of the $787 billion stimulus is a classic example how the Senate's 60-vote rule works. Three moderate Republicans held it hostage, insisting their cuts and additions prevail. I'm uncertain whether they improved or weakened the bill. Doesn't matter. What does matter is that one or two senators of a minority party can dictate the terms of legislation despite the will of a simple majority plus one to break the logjam.

In their infinite wisdom the Senate over the years developed the rules they now abide. Certainly, they recognized a 60-vote rule for budget resolutions was impractical in order to transact the chamber's business without stripping the minority's rights.

The inherent problem with the "Big Casino" approach is political. What is a senator to do when he passionately objects to a budget reform of the health care system, for example, but favors all the other measures in the package? It conjures images of the much maligned Sen. John Kerry who voted in favor of an Iraq war spending resolution and then voted against it.

Another problem in the current political climate is how much input can Republicans offer that would be seriously considered by the majority of Democrats. If the minority is cut out of the equation as House Republicans claim on the stimulus bill ramrodded on a fast track by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then the whole process turns into a sham.

From my perch, I doubt Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has either the clout or the cojones to follow Rahm Emanuel's lead of sidestepping the 60-vote rule. I think moderate Democrats will want to consider the three-leg stool separately and not as a single budget package.

Either way, it makes good discussion among political junkies such as Mr. Matthews and myself.

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