BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
Tuesday night Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called a bluff. The question now becomes: Is this a fluke, or a trend in the making?
In a long fight to extend jobless benefits for the almost 9.8 percent of Americans who are unemployed, Republicans have made every effort to slow the process in the Senate. After being presented with crazy amendments addressing some of the GOP’s favorite new obsessions such as ACORN, the bank bailout and immigration, Reid basically said, “To hell with it” and called for a cloture vote.
It’s about time, and not a second too soon for the growing numbers of unemployed.
Cloture, as many of you know, is a vote to end discussion and move on to a floor vote on the merits of the proposed legislation. It is why those oft-mentioned 60 votes (the number required to come to such a conclusion in the Senate) are so important these days.
The vote on whether to consider HR 3548, the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2009, in the Senate was 87 to 13, moving the bill toward final consideration on the Senate floor. The bill has changed since its original passage in the House last month, so a reconciliation process will be necessary in which the two houses of Congress must agree on a compromise.
Surprisingly, the Senate bill is more generous than the House version. The House voted to extend benefits for 14 weeks only to states with high rates of unemployment (above 8.5 percent), paid for by extending the unemployment taxes already being paid by businesses. But the Senate bill proposes to extend benefits for 14 weeks to all states and for 20 weeks to states with the high unemployment rate of 8.5 percent singled out by the House.
But while Senate Democrats have been working to make the bill more helpful for unemployed citizens, Republicans of that same chamber have been dragging their feet with the help of unrelated amendments.
“Republicans decided to make a political statement by demanding completely irrelevant amendments — amendments that have little, if anything, to do with unemployment or even the economy generally — and they decided that the political statement was more important than helping their constituents afford to pay bills,” Reid said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) countered that Democrats have refused to consider an amendment extending the first-time home buyer tax credit as part of the legislation, noting it is clearly, if tangentially, related to the economic endeavors of the unemployment extension.
But as National Public Radio (NPR) reports, that amendment is the one that actually has the best chance at passage of all those offered by Republicans. Furthermore, the amendment actually bears on the economy, which means by Senate rules it can be offered even after cloture has been voted upon.
NPR estimated that since the measure passed in the House, some 400,000 Americans have lost their jobs. At the same time, the number of people losing their unemployment benefits grows by 7,000 a day. So even as the bill heads closer to passage, thousands more are in need every day that the legislation goes unpassed.
You might imagine that the 13 senators who rejected the idea of moving forward to stem the rising cost of unemployment were from states with very low unemployment numbers, and you’d be right in certain cases. States such as Wyoming (with a rate of 6.8 percent) and Oklahoma (6.7 percent) saw both of their conservative senators vote against cloture.
But five of those 13 senators were from states with high rates of unemployment: Sens. Kit Bond of Missouri (9.5 percent), Jeff Sessions of Alabama (10.7 percent), Jim Bunning of Kentucky (10.9 percent) and both senators from the hard-hit state of South Carolina (which has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country at 11.6 percent), Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint voted to keep debating the bill while their states bleed jobs.
Furthermore, though Cornyn’s home state of Texas only has 8.2 percent unemployment, the state recently ran out of money to pay jobless benefits, having to take out a federal loan to continue writing the checks.
The Obama Administration did release a statement promoting the extension as something of a stimulus, since jobless Americans are quite likely to go out and spend that unemployment check right away. The statement also spoke the lingo of conservatives by promoting the fiscal conservancy of the plan. Still that wasn’t enough for some Republicans, who evidently find obstructing Democrats more appealing than standing up for what they themselves profess to believe in.
Now, there’s nothing new about Republicans putting silliness like defunding ACORN over the desperate needs of their constituents (and if not their constituents, the country at large, in the case of those states with lower rates of unemployment). What is new and notable here is that these senators had to stand up and be counted as dragging their feet on urgent legislation that affects thousands of Americans every day.
Most of the time when we hear about the need for 60 votes, or a filibuster-proof majority, the Democratic leadership in the Senate never calls the bluff. Therefore, any senator who even mentions the word “filibuster” gets the chance to derail controversial legislation without the detriment of having it show up on their roll call history.
Surely that is the hope of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT). After he announced yesterday his willingness to join Republicans in filibustering the public option out of the Senate healthcare bill, all eyes were on him. It made me wonder if he was a little jealous of all the attention poured on Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) recently.
More importantly, however, it made me wonder what Reid’s next move would be. He ended up brushing it off in a bizarre third-person statement to the media, but you know it’s still on his mind. After allowing Lieberman to retain his seniority after supporting the Republicans in the 2008 presidential election, Reid must be slapping his forehead with regret. But I hope he realizes that he still has the power to call Lieberman’s bluff.
Any progressive who’s paying attention to this process knows that the public option being floated in the Senate is already highly compromised and watered down. If this compromise to end all compromises can’t get Lieberman’s support, nothing worth passing will. And if Reid abandons his recent pledge to include even this adulterated version of a public option in the Senate bill, he can kiss whatever support progressives still provide him goodbye.
If Reid should decide to hold strong in the face of Lieberman and other conservative threats, he has several courses of action available to him. First, he should call for a cloture vote on healthcare, forcing Lieberman to stand with his Republican colleagues and block healthcare reform.
If they actually do that, Reid can proceed to step two: reconciliation. As I’ve noted in the past, this is not an ideal way to pass reform for several reasons. But it’s better than not passing anything at all, which would certainly sound the death knell for Democrats in 2010.
One would hope that Reid’s actions are based at least somewhat on the urgent need for both unemployment benefits and health insurance, and that forcing conservatives to reveal themselves as obstructionist corporate shills is only a side benefit of calling for a cloture vote. But personally, I don’t care why Reid and other congressional leaders decide to grow a pair. I just care that they do it, and soon.
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS