TOPICS > Politics

As Senate Dynamic Shifts, a Test for Both Parties

February 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Senate Democrats are looking to newly-seated Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., to reach across the aisle now that their 60-vote majority is gone. Brown's upset election has cast a new light on legislative tactics like the filibuster, and what they mean for the agenda on Capitol Hill.
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JIM LEHRER: Scott Brown came officially to Washington today, and brought some potentially far-reaching implications for the United States Senate.

Judy Woodruff has our coverage.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: If the senator-elect will now present himself…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Senate formally welcomed Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown this afternoon. He was sworn in by Vice President Biden.

JOSEPH BIDEN: … upon which you’re about to enter, so help you God?

SEN. SCOTT BROWN, R-Mass.: I do.

JOSEPH BIDEN: Congratulations, Senator.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brown initially had said he didn’t want to be seated until next Thursday, but, yesterday, he asked to be sworn in sooner, to join in upcoming votes.

His first could be on confirming union lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans have held up the nomination.

SEN. SCOTT BROWN: Hi, everybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brown has also promised to be the 41st vote against the Democratic health care reform bill. But, at the same time, he said he won’t vote in lockstep with Republicans. California Democrat Barbara Boxer said today she hopes he keeps that promise.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, D-Calif.: Senator Brown, our new senator, said he wanted to get things done, he wanted to reach across the aisle. He’s going to find a lot of people who are saying, yes, let’s work together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey warned, it would be unwise for Brown or any Republican to vote no on everything.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: And I think there would be a price to pay for that, when the American people come to an understanding that no doesn’t create a job, no doesn’t create health care, no doesn’t move us forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the Republican side, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions argued it’s Democrats who should be careful.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-Ala: That was the message of Massachusetts, that you’re going too fast, you’re having too much big comprehensive legislation, whether it’s immigration, or cap and trade for the environment, or health care, and they’re not happy with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The back-and-forth has put a renewed focus on the filibuster, which forces a 60-vote supermajority to cut off debate. As of today, Democrats are one short of that total, with 57 senators and two independents who caucus with them, to 41 Republicans, including Brown.

President Obama addressed the issue in his State of the Union speech last week.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the Senate’s number-two Republican, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, charged today the president took a cheap shot.

SEN. JON KYL, R- Ariz., Minority Whip: If you will recall, he said that we demanded 60 votes on everything and always said no. Both of those statements are false. You don’t hold out a hand of cooperation to somebody by making two false and hurtful charges against them. And that’s the way that we felt about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Instead, Kyl said the filibuster is vital to how the country’s system of government is supposed to work.

SEN. JON KYL: The Senate has always been looked upon as the body to cool passions, to slow things down a little bit, think it over, the House of Representatives, elected every two years, more the immediate reaction of the people to a particular issue. And the combination, I think, has worked pretty well over the centuries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But New Jersey’s Menendez said the use of the filibuster has led to gridlock in the Senate.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: I have always appreciated the institutional mechanisms the Senate has had. But I have to be honest with you. For the first time in my public career, I am thinking about whether the filibuster, as it is right now, is acceptable in a democracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many Democrats in the House, where there is no filibuster, also want the Senate to change its rules. Representative Barney Frank calls it a constitutional crisis. He helped push through a financial regulatory reform bill last year, but it’s been held up in the Senate.

REP. BARNEY FRANK, D-Mass., Financial Services Committee chairman: The problem with 60 is, it biases the system against anything happening, because these are legitimate, controversial issues. And, again, if the notion is, we want to slow things down, then let’s say, here’s the rule that slows things down. But you can’t use the argument that we want to make sure that things take more time for a procedure which says it can’t happen at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, it’s not clear there’s any chance the Senate will switch to simple majority rule. Supporters would need 67 votes to force that change.

And now we are joined by two former members of the Senate. Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman served six years. He is now the chairman of the American Action Network, a conservative think tank. And South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle was both majority and minority leader during his 18 years in the Senate. He is now senior policy adviser for a Washington law firm. Plus, longtime Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Gentlemen, thank you all for being with us.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to let’s just pick up with what Representative Frank was Barney Frank was telling me when I talked to him. He his view is that the filibuster may be have been intended to slow things down, but what it’s really done is, it has just stopped things from happening altogether.

Senator Daschle, is he right?

TOM DASCHLE, former Senate Minority Leader: Well, Judy, I think the president it said very succinctly the other day when he said that we have had more filibusters in the last two years than we had in the last two decades.

So, what’s happening is that there’s greater and greater reliance on the filibuster across the board, whether it’s on a nomination or on a piece of legislation, and that’s led to a dysfunctionality, our inability to address serious issues, that I think has become very serious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Coleman, inability to address serious issues?

NORM COLEMAN, former U.S. Senator: In November, 2003, Senator Daschle, minority leader, said, the filibuster is the unlimited debate excuse me is the essence of the institution.

This is a good thing for democracy. What it requires now is the majority party to reach across the aisle and to try to get some folks on the other side to work with them. I think America has spoken out about one-party government. I think Massachusetts was a kind of, I think, a symbol. And that was part of the statement.

And, so, in the past, Senator Daschle, I think, led 10 filibusters against judicial appointees. We, by the way, in those days talked about the constitutional option, because we thought the Constitution didn’t require supermajorities in judicial appointees. We respect it in other matters.

The other side called it a nuclear option, that, if we were to change that, that, somehow, it would be like a nuclear bomb being dropped on the Senate. So, I think requiring the majority party to reach across the aisle is a good thing. We did it with No Child Left Behind. We did it with the Medicare Part D.

And, so, I think it has served the body well to have a little cooling off, and, more important, reach across the aisle if you want to get something done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Daschle, is it just a matter of the shoe being on the other foot now?

TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think Senator Coleman makes a point.

I do think that there has to be a greater effort at comity, at finding ways to reach across the aisle, but it comes both ways. Obviously, if you reach across the aisle, you have got to make sure somebody’s there.

And what the president has said in the last couple of days, especially, is that he has made efforts to reach across the aisle, without much success. I think that effort needs to continue.

One possibility, Judy, that I I have advocated now for some time is to have more joint caucuses. The caucuses now meet and they have they really become pep rallies. And I think, the more you could find that comity in a joint caucus with some frequency, I think you could find the real possibility of reaching across the aisle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norm Ornstein…

NORM COLEMAN: And, Judy, by the way, I agree…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead, Senator.

NORM COLEMAN: I agree with Senator Daschle about that. You know, we sit in our own corners. We sit in our own side. We eat lunch by ourselves.

And there’s got to be a change. I have got to believe that having Scott Brown in the Senate may be a there may be a sigh of relief from folks like Mark Pryor or Tom Carper from Delaware, Kent Conrad from North Dakota, folks who have tried to work together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are Democrats.

NORM COLEMAN: And now they think they may have an opportunity to do so. And when they do that, that’s when government is at its best. We have lost a lot of that comity. Tom Daschle was good at it. I worry today that we’re at a point where it really needs a lot of repair.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norm Ornstein, we’re hearing these two former senators talk about ways that the two parties can work together. But the way it’s working right now in the Senate is I mean, critics, Democratic critics, are saying, basically, the will of the majority is being ignored.

So, is that an overstatement?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It’s an overstatement in part.

You know, when you use the filibuster for issues of great national concern or moment, which is traditionally the way it’s been used and that would include health care, by the way than having a hurdle of 60 is not necessarily a bad thing.

What’s happened now is the routinization of the filibuster for issues where there has been a reach across the aisle. This last year, for example, we had a bill that ultimately passed with a unanimous vote, 97 votes. There were three filibusters raised on that bill. Each time, it took 30 hours of debate.

So, the filibuster is being used not simply to slow things down to try and reach a consensus, but for obstructionist purposes. And that’s a difference from what we have seen in the past. And the question now is, with Scott Brown there, will we see less of that and more of an opportunity and effort to expedite business in the Senate?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do what do you think, Senator Daschle? What do you think, now that the Republicans have 41 votes?

TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think what you have seen in the last few days, especially, is what we have been talking about. The president went to the Republican House caucus the other day.

He has done a number of things just in the last couple days to telegraph, look, let’s see if we can find common ground on jobs, on tax policy, on the budget, on an array of issues, because we really don’t have any other choice.

It’s either going to be a dysfunctional Congress or it’s going to be a Congress that finds way to work more carefully together, because, as you noted in your piece, you can’t change the rules unless you get 67 votes. And I guarantee you, you’re not going to find 67 votes for these rules changes, at least right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Coleman, what do you think? The Republicans I talked to today on the Hill didn’t suggest to me that they thought there was going to be much more cooperation with the president, with the Democrats. How do you how do you see it?

NORM COLEMAN: Well, but I think I think, in part, because there still is just a high measure of distrust there.

When the president came before the House caucus, he talked about working in a bipartisan way, but, at the same time, took shots at the minority. So, you know, words have to be translated into action. The bottom line is that we need both sides to come together.

This is a very difficult time for this country. And I think folks are expecting us to do something. I think today was a good day for America. Now, I say it with Scott Brown being in the Senate not as a Republican. I don’t say it as a Republican, but the fact is, there’s going to be a requirement now for the majority party to reach across the aisle and to try to make it work.

And and Senator Daschle is right. Our side has to respond. But we are in a better position to do that when one side doesn’t have a supermajority.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, if that’s the case, Norm, and you yourself were saying earlier getting rid of the filibuster is really difficult to do.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It is. You if you try and do it within the rules, it takes 67 votes.

What Senator Coleman was talking about, what he called the constitutional option, was making a unilateral move to declare the filibuster unconstitutional. And that’s partly why a lot of people called it the nuclear option.

I think that some Democrats are going to be tempted to move in that direction. And I think it’s a mistake now, as I thought it was a mistake before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Because, if you blow up the Senate the Senate operates not just with a Rule 22, which is the filibuster that requires 60 votes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you call it blowing up the Senate?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Because you’re going to end up this is a body that operates by unanimous consent.

And if you get 40 of your members or more really upset, you could bollix up the works completely. So, you have got to move a little slowly here, or at least hope that you can find other ways to work together.

And, actually, having the the pressure off Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who can’t get 60 of his own votes together more than once every few months, at best, may make a difference, and it may put more pressure on both parties to find vehicles to make things work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator Daschle, if the pressure is off, then what do we look for? What’s really at stake with what what happens in the Senate? A lot of people look at Washington and they say this place is dysfunctional, it’s not working. What’s really at stake with all this?

TOM DASCHLE: well, I think two things are at stake, first of all, of course, the agenda. We have a huge array of big, big issues that have to be addressed, regardless of your position.

We know we have to address health care, and the economy, and the deficit, and a number of issues involving international issues. But the second question is equally as important. And that is, what the quality of governance in America today, and what message does that quality of governance send, not only to our country, but to the rest of the world?

And I think we have got a huge challenge in ensuring that we can demonstrate that we can attain a level in quality of governance that we don’t have today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To get something done, however, Senator Coleman, I mean, what kind of a majority would a party have to have? I mean, if 60 votes wasn’t enough, what are we looking at now?

NORM COLEMAN: I was in a Senate where it was 51-49, and we actually got a few things done.

I think the pressure may come with next November. I think our party in the past, when Senator Daschle was in the minority, we said the minority was going to pay a price if they simply obstructed. I think we understand that. I think the American public in these most challenging times are expecting us to get some things done.

So, I am hopeful that now the the structure will get set up that there’s a requirement to reach across the aisle. I think both sides of the aisle have got to be kind of looking at their back and saying, if we don’t produce, there will be a price to be paid for any incumbent, regardless of party, next November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think the elections could have that affect, Norm?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The elections could. It will be interesting to see if Republicans, many of them facing primary challenges, potentially strong challenges from the right, people like Bob Bennett of Utah, a conservative, where the price for working with Democrats may be greater than the price for for taking the other side.

One of the things that’s happened here, Judy, is the culture of Washington and the culture of the Senate has changed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me stop you.

What about that, Senator Coleman? It is the case that some members will be less inclined to work with the other side, because they as Norm Ornstein just said, they pay the price.

NORM COLEMAN: You know, I say this very respectfully. There is so much cynicism out there that everything we do is measured by, how is someone going to yell at me or not?

A person like Bob Bennett, in the end, is going to be the same guy today as he was before. He acts with integrity. I think he’s going to continue to do that. The bottom line, if you want to win in November, I think you’re going to be measured by whether you get things done.

Our side is willing to work. We took umbrage when the president said that we weren’t offering ideas. We have put the ideas on the table. There are going to be some local politics now that are going to be challenging that. We have that all the time. But, in the end, I think folks are going to understand that whether they’re going to be able to keep doing the job is going to be dependent on whether folks see them as being productive and actually making a positive difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Daschle, how do you see this question of the effect of the election, the role of the election?

TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think Norm is exactly right. My view is that there are short-term politics involved in some of these races that that drive Democrats and Republicans to the extreme of their base.

But, at the end of the day, the longer-term politics always is found in the middle. You have got to find the common ground. You have got to be able to find ways with which to demonstrate you can govern, or the incumbents ultimately pay a price. I think that ultimately will happen in this case as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in the meantime, the filibuster lives, right, Norm Ornstein?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The filibuster lives, and we can’t operate as a parliamentary system with these kinds of rules in place. You have got to find bipartisan solutions. And, without it, we’re going to have big trouble, but there will continue to be a filibuster, at least until the beginning of the next Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We have got so much to look forward to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, Senator Daschle, Senator Coleman, Norm Ornstein, thank you all.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thanks, Judy.

NORM COLEMAN: Thank you.<-->