Sixteen years ago, when another new Democratic President was trying to enact an economic package, the Republicans were entrenched in opposition, too. But there was a striking difference between those Republicans and today’s: the 1993 Republicans still showed some respect for democracy.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Bob Dole whipped 100 percent of his troops into line opposing President Bill Clinton’s “deficit reduction plan.” With the help of six Democrats, Dole managed to deny Clinton a majority on the bill and forced Vice President Al Gore to break the 50-50 tie.
Yet what’s remarkable about that 1993 case – at least in contrast to today – is that Dole and his Republicans did not filibuster Clinton’s economic package. If they had, they almost surely would have killed it, since Clinton would have had little chance of mustering a 60-vote super-majority.
In those “old days” – covering all of U.S. history except for the present – the filibuster was reserved for disputes over core principles (i.e. Southern senators fighting to protect segregation in the 1950s and 1960s) or for issues that were particularly sensitive to one of the parties (i.e. in 1991, Dole blocked a full investigation into President George H.W. Bush’s role in secret deals with Iran).
Otherwise, most legislation passed the Senate and the House by majority votes. It wasn’t always easy but that’s how democracy worked. The voters sent their representatives to Congress and simple majorities enacted the vast bulk of the people’s business.
Even as recently as 2006, this principle held sway as a bipartisan group, called the “Gang of 14,” agreed to block filibusters of President George W. Bush’s right-wing judicial appointments, except in “extraordinary circumstances.” That agreement enabled Bush to push through the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito despite 42 senators voting against such a radical choice.
It wasn’t until the Republicans lost their majorities in the House and Senate in 2007 that today’s promiscuous use of the filibuster (or threats to launch a filibuster) became a regular feature of the U.S. Senate, so much so that many reporters covering Congress now act as if it’s always been this way.
Instead of noting how anti-democratic the Republican tactics are in denying the will of the majority, these correspondents intone in a world-weary way about how in the Senate 60 votes are needed to do just about anything – the natural way of things.
This media tendency to go soft on the Republicans fits with the continued rightward tilt of the Washington press corps, now dominated by a mix of right-wing ideologues who share the Republican philosophy and shallow careerists who know that they’ll enhance their job security by bending right.
So, the Washington press corps has largely missed the real story of President Barack Obama’s first few weeks in office: that the Republicans – even with an economic catastrophe facing the nation – have chosen to deploy the filibuster as a partisan weapon, trying to kill the new administration in its cradle.
Though failing to achieve that ultimate goal on the stimulus bill, the Republican filibuster threats have forced the Democrats to water down the package with more tax cuts as a way of luring three Republican senators to support the bill.
But instead of the Republican-obstruction storyline, the conventional wisdom has been that Obama “failed” in his goal of achieving post-partisanship and that the Democrats are beset by infighting over the need to modify the stimulus package. Almost never are the Republicans blamed for sabotaging Obama’s efforts to ease the partisan bickering in Washington.
Arguably, Obama is somewhat to blame for this PR problem. He did try more than probably made sense to reach out to Republicans, speaking to their congressional caucuses even before he met with members from his own party.
Nevertheless, the bigger story is that Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders appear to have committed themselves to permanent trench warfare against the new President out of a calculation that his failure – and presumably a worsening economy – will boost Republican prospects in 2010.
Even senators, such as John McCain who led the “Gang of 14” initiative to prevent filibusters of Bush’s radical-right judicial nominees, have embraced filibusters to cripple the Obama administration.
Beyond the hypocrisy, this behavior reflects a profound contempt for democracy. Whether the Republicans like it or not, the American people elected Barack Obama by a decisive margin and gave the Democrats increased majorities in the House and Senate.
Instead of accepting those results and serving as a loyal opposition, the Republicans have fallen back to their final line of defense – their strength in the national news media – and they have wheeled out the filibuster to blast away at President Obama’s hope of enacting a coherent economic plan.
This strategy may or may not make for smart politics – it certainly has energized the Republican “base” but it may be offending mainstream Americans who want action on the economy.
But the GOP tactics don't represent the natural way Washington has worked throughout history. Filibustering at every turn is not what a more responsible generation of Republicans – the likes of Bob Dole – would have done.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on February 14, 2009.