The Patricia Smith case study

THE PATRICIA SMITH CASE STUDY…. As the legislative process gets underway in earnest in 2010, it appears that Senate Republicans have become even more obstructionist than they were in 2009. Especially in the wake of the Massachusetts special election, GOP members — all of them — have managed to become even worse and less responsible.

Last week, Republicans’ knee-jerk opposition to literally everything Democrats propose led them to reject measures such as “paygo” and the Conrad-Gregg deficit-reduction commission — which the GOP said it wanted. This week, they focused their energies on blocking Patricia Smith.

President Obama nominated Smith, currently the New York State Labor Commissioner, to be the solicitor general at the Department of Labor. She’s overwhelmingly qualified for the post, and enjoys the support of everyone from the AFL-CIO to New York Chambers of Commerce to Republican lawmakers in the House.

Senate Democrats decided to bring her nomination to the floor this week, where it was met with yet another Republican filibuster. Democrats overcame it, but with no votes to spare.

Every Republican who showed up voted to sustain a filibuster against her nomination. As a result, it took every member of the Democratic caucus to end the filibuster, on a 60-32 vote. In a normal legislative body, a 2-1 vote is a rout. In today’s Senate, it’s a squeaker.

And when Scott Brown takes his newly-won Senate seat, the GOP will have the votes it needs to block nominees like Patricia Smith.

“They’re going to have to decide what they’re going to do. Brown will be here shortly and they’ll hold the [power] on whether or not we have people in place to make the country work,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

It’s only reasonable to wonder whether they actually want the country to work, especially if breakdowns and dysfunction might bring them electoral rewards.

As for the rationale, GOP senators had one argument: “The issue — which was really not, of course, the issue — centered on a small pilot program in New York called Wage Watch, which aims to educate workers about the minimum wage is and when they are entitled to overtime. Republicans, during committee hearings, insisted that it was a Big Labor plot, but Smith said the idea had been generated within her office. It was later shown that apparently a labor representative had suggested it to an employee, who then suggested it to Smith.”

It was a minor, inconsequential error, and Republicans surely knew that. But they didn’t care.

Note the roll call, and the fact that both of the so-called “moderates” in the Republican caucus — Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — voted with their party to block a vote on Smith’s nomination.

President Obama reminded congressional Republicans last week, “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.” But for this crowd, short-term politics is the only thing that matters.

And with Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to be sworn in next Thursday, Feb. 11, key posts are likely to remain vacant indefinitely — an unprecedented situation in American history — because Republicans prefer recklessness to responsibility.

As for Smith, the Senate is scheduled to give her nomination an up-or-down vote today, and she’s expected to win confirmation.