In search of a willing governing partner

IN SEARCH OF A WILLING GOVERNING PARTNER…. Last weekend, OMB Director Peter Orszag suggested the administration might pursue major healthcare and energy reforms through the budget reconciliation process. The point would be to make passage far easier — Republicans can vote against reconciliation bills, but they can’t filibuster them.

Given the seriousness of the issues, then, the White House was publicly weighing its options. If the measures would require a simple majority vote, and Democrats enjoy a Senate majority, this procedural move would make progress on these issues far more likely.

At least, in theory. Elana Schor reported yesterday that eight Democratic senators joined 25 Republicans to express their disapproval of this tactic when it comes to combating global warming. Senate Republicans want to filibuster the legislation, and these eight Democrats want them to be able to filibuster the legislation. Not surprisingly, most of the Democratic senators who would like to see more GOP obstructionism are “coal country senators.”

The letter was sent just a couple of days after Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said President Obama’s budget would struggle to win a Senate majority, in large part because of Conrad’s opposition to a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions.

It led Matt Yglesias to raise the right question: do lawmakers want to tackle serious problems or not?

When I read stories about Democrats signing letters urging the leadership not to pass cap & trade through budget reconciliation, or whining that Clinton-era tax rates will wreck the economy, or preemptively caving on permit auction, then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s not the administration doing something wrong is that the key members of congress just fundamentally agree with George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell that it doesn’t matter if people die of treatable illness or if the planet ceases to support human life.

It’s not, after all, as if any great mystery over how you move legislation that you think is important. Fifty is a smaller number than 60, and it’s easier to get smaller numbers of votes that bigger ones. If these guys have some genius alternative plan of preventing atmospheric carbon from reaching deadly levels, I’m all ears — but if they’re convincing then, again, I would want that plan to pass with a minimum of procedural hurdles. But it seems to me they don’t have any such plan, they just want to keep letting our problems get worse and worse indefinitely, but they don’t have the guts to admit it.

It’s tempting to think this is just a leadership challenge. Obama can step up, make his case, convince the nation, and rally lawmakers.

If only it were that simple. For Republicans and center-right Democrats, it’s not about the seriousness of the crisis, presidential popularity, or public opinion. What matters is protecting parochial interests and maintaining the status quo. If they can use Senate procedural mechanisms to give themselves an excuse for inaction, they’re delighted.

What’s more, it’s not just energy policy. The Senate Democratic caucus may have 58 members, but finding Republicans willing to break filibusters is about as challenging as keeping Dems from breaking ranks and undermining the administration’s agenda. Democrats want to pass EFCA, but Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is a problem. They want to change U.S. policy towards Cuba, but Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is a problem. They want to expand Pell Grants, but Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is a problem. They want to finally produce a real progressive budget that changes the way the federal government works, but a wide variety of “centrist” Democrats are a problem.

When Speaker Pelosi quietly complains about the Senate caucus, this is what she’s talking about.