In political gamble, Reid seeks votes that are sure to fail
By David A. Fahrenthold Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 5:17 PM
On Wednesday afternoon, the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate did something that sounds odd: He set himself up to lose an important vote.
Then he planned to do it again, on another key issue.
And then another.
And then another.
Four times in the same afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) planned votes where his favored bills were expected to fail. For Reid, failure is actually the point. He wants to put Republicans on record as blocking all four – which deal with immigration rules, police and firefighters’ unions, health benefits for responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and seniors’ benefits.
These “test votes” are a sign of the sclerotic state of Congress, clogged by filibuster threats. Usually, it is the people out of power who resort to grand, futile gestures.
Now – in a political gamble – it’s the guys in charge.
“Just because the party of ‘Just say no,’ has been blocking all these initiatives, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to try,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid. “At some point, you’ve got to take a stand, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Senate Democrats, who hold a majority in the chamber, held their last “test vote” on Saturday. That proposal called for an end to tax cuts, passed under President George W. Bush, on income greater than $250,000 for a family.
Democrats needed 60 senators to agree. They got just 53.
Then, Democratic leaders proposed another vote, on ending the tax cuts only for income of more than $1 million per year for a family. That failed, too.
In theory, these votes were supposed to demonstrate that Republicans were favoring the rich at the expense of the middle class. In practice, however, it demonstrated something else: Senate Democrats weren’t strong enough to get what they wanted.
“That’s a worse message for Democrats” than Republicans, said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “The message was: ‘Look, Democrats are pushing a politically untenable position.”
On Wednesday, however, Senate Democrats set out to use the same tactic again.
Binder said that “test votes” have worked before. Civil-rights advocates, for instance, used them to attract attention to their cause: by showing their weakness in Congress, they gained public sympathy and strength.
But in this situation, she said, it’s a serious political risk. To understand why the Democrats are making a show of their own weakness, she said, the public needs to understand the roots of that weakness, the clogged-up complexities of Senate rules.
“The question is…who gets blamed when they fail?” Binder said. “More often than not, it goes that the majority gets blamed for failing to govern, more than the blame gets passed to the minority.”
Before the votes began, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) jabbed at Democrats for holding votes they knew they’d lose.
“They don’t even intend to pass these items,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. He compared the process to theater: “Are we here to perform, or are we here to legislate?”
The four bills at issue are:
n The DREAM ACT. It would, a proposal to allow some illegal immigrants, those who came to this country as children and grew up to attend college or serve in the military, a path to citizenship. It has been attacked as a kind of amnesty for lawbreakers.
n A bill that would require states to give police and firefighters’ unions “adequate” collective bargaining rights. This has been criticized for trampling on states’ autonomy.
n A bill that would provide long-term medical care for men and women who suffered health problems while responding to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or helping to clean up the wreckage. It has been attacked for its multi-billion-dollar cost.
Then A bill to provide a $250 check to seniors covered by social security, to account for higher costs of living.
In each case, the vote is not to approve or reject the bills. Instead, it is something far more confusing: a vote to end debate on the bills – though, at that point, nobody will actually be debating them.
This is the latest evolution of the filibuster – the Senate tradition where a bill’s opponents can block it by standing up and talking themselves hoarse. Except now, the Seante not usually require the stand-up-and-talk part.
Like nuclear war, a filibuster need only be threatened. To beat that threat, Reid needs 60 votes.
And no one expected he would have them.
So, will the bills’ supporters be pleased that he made the effort?
“What it shows is that his ability to lead has been severely impaired, over the last several months,” said James Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, which supports the Sept. 11 bill and is neutral on the collective-bargaining bill (they believe Reid has watered it down severely).
Reid’s strategy of a stage-managed failure, Pasco said, wouldn’t exactly increase the FOP’s faith in him.
“It’s going to make us more cautious than we already were, in throwing our support and our trust behind an individual” on Capitol Hill, Pasco said.
But Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, said this is the best option for Reid. Mann said that someone needs to point out how often the filibuster threat is used now. In the mid-80s, Congress only voted on filibuster threats about 10 times a year.
In the current Congress, the number was about 40.
“It really is bizare, but because of the use of the filibuster, it is the majority that puts forward votes that they know they will lose,” Mann said. But he said that at least Reid’s effort demonstrates that the Senate’s rules need change: “In my view, they do it too little.”