CONGRESS: The 100 Vote Senate
September 16, 2010, 2:00am
by Faiz Shakir, Benjamin Armbruster, George Zornick, Zaid Jilani, Alex Seitz-Wald, Ian Milhiser, and Tanya Somanader

It’s common wisdom that nothing gets done in the U.S. Senate without a 60 vote supermajority, but this common wisdom is entirely too optimistic. Although only a small minority of senators object to any one of President Obama’s judicial nominees, confirmations have slowed to such a glacial pace that Republican control over federal trial courts increased since Obama took office. Likewise, a massive 372 bills that passed House during the Obama presidency have yet to receive a vote in the Senate. Only a handful of these bills were even remotely controversial in the House, and 44 of them passed the House unanimously. Such obstruction works, even against uncontroversial bills and nominations, because the Senate’s system of filibusters, delay tactics and secret holds empowers just one senator to bring the institution to a standstill. The Senate does not operate by majority rule; It does not really even operate by supermajority rule. Increasingly, the Senate can only act unanimously.

THE TOOLS OF OBSTRUCTION: The most valuable commodity in the Senate is not votes, it is time. Sixty senators can break a filibuster through a process known as “cloture,” but filibustering senators can force up to 30 hours of post-cloture debate once a filibuster is broken. Although 30 hours may not seem like a lot, when you multiply it across the hundreds of judges, ambassadors and other officials that require Senate confirmation — not to mention the 372 unpassed bills — it adds up to more time than there actually exists to move business forward on the Senate floor. For example, take Obama’s 44 unconfirmed judicial nominees. At 30 hours per nominee, it would take nearly two months to confirm each of these judges, and that’s assuming the Senate worked around the clock on both weekdays and weekends, and that it passed no bills, confirmed no other nominees, and took up no other matters for this entire period. Moreover, in part because just one senator can initiate a filibuster, it’s possible for the Senate’s single most radical member to bring the entire body to a standstill. To top all of this off, that one senator often doesn’t even need to reveal who they are thanks to “secret holds.” According to one count, there are 132 secret holds on Obama’s judicial nominees and no way to know who is behind them.

THE COST OF OBSTRUCTION: The Senate is not a rubber stamp, and it can and should reject bills that don’t deserve to be law. But as long as the right can — under cover of secrecy — delay Senate business into oblivion, it is unlikely that more than a few the 372 languishing bills will ever be considered on their merits. Beyond essential bills to prevent catastrophic global warming and mitigate the damage caused by the Supreme Court’s egregious decision allowing unlimited corporate funds into American elections, these bills were almost entirely uncontroversial in the House. They include measures to prevent prisons from becoming breeding grounds for AIDS, to authorize relief for torture victims, and to ensure that college dorms are equipped with fire sprinklers. Even bills to enable a full investigation into BP’s catastrophic oil spill and to ensure that BP is held accountable for this spill are being denied a Senate vote. Meanwhile, obstructing Obama’s judicial nominees has one purpose: maintaining the right’s stranglehold on the federal judiciary. Until this stranglehold is broken, everything from health care reform and stem cell research to the environment and the fairness of American elections is in jeopardy.

THE POWER OF ONE: Obstructionism could get a whole lot worse if any one of the Tea Party’s radical slate of candidates joins the Senate. Under the Senate’s anachronistic rules, just one senator can forbid any Senate committee from holding hearings after 2pm. Likewise, a single senator can demand that every proposed amendment to a pending bill be read aloud — wasting hours of time in the process. Indeed, the Senate’s ability to function is built upon unanimous consent agreements. If just one senator refuses to join any of these agreements, the body will effectively shut down. This is not an academic concern. When Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle served in the state legislature, it was common to say that bills passed “62 to Angle,” because of Angle’s pattern of casting solitary “no” votes. Likewise, Kentucky GOP candidate Rand Paul has promised to oppose any budget which includes a penny of deficit spending, effectively demanding that the Senate do the impossible. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who is already staking out a role as the leader of the Senate’s emerging extremist faction, admitted that his goal for the Senate is “complete gridlock.” In other words, next year’s Senate class could include a number of senators who simply aren’t in touch with reality, and it only takes one to sabotage the entire legislative body.

Think Fast

President Obama will appoint Elizabeth Warren to “a special advisory role” to help lead the new consumer financial protection bureau “while avoiding a potentially vicious confirmation fight.” In her new role as adviser to Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Warren will take charge of “the new watchdog agency she personally proposed three years ago to protect Americans against lending abuses.”

A new New York Times/CBS News poll has found that “the public steadfastly supports the president’s proposal to let tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans.” Fifty-three percent said it is a “good idea,” while 38 percent said it is a bad idea. The poll also found that “far more people still blame Wall Street and the Bush administration than blame” President Obama for the country’s economic problems.

In reaction to Republican Christine O’Donnell’s U.S. Senate primary win in Delaware, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) warned “that overly enforcing conservative orthodoxy will only hurt the GOP.” A “conservative firebrand” who lost his own primary to a Tea Party candidate, Inglis said that conservatism should be “based on sound free-enterprise principles” and “not on knee-jerk lurches into anarchy.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) “accidentally walked into a room full of lobbyists Wednesday morning and declared that ‘Republicans are not prepared to take over the Senate.'” “Some Republicans agree,” Politico reports, “and say he may be part of the reason why.” Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) reportedly “raised concerns that the party has sent a message that it had no room for moderates.”

Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Gene Taylor (MS) became the first member of his party to sign onto a pledge to repeal the recently passed health care law. “We are pleased to see Representative Gene Taylor choosing principle over party,” said Heritage Action CEO Michael A. Needham.

“A record number of homeowners lost houses to their banks in August,” with real estate data company RealtyTrac estimating that 1.2 million homes are currently in a state of repossession, up from 1 million last year. During the same period of time in 2005, 100,000 homes were repossessed.

Former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte won the New Hampshire GOP Senate primary yesterday, defeating Tea Party favorite Ovide Lamontagne by a slim margin of just 1,667 votes. Ayotte had the backing of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, as well as the GOP establishment, which recruited her enter the race.

President Obama told a gathering of Hispanic members of Congress yesterday that he won’t “walk away” from tackling immigration reform. “I know that many of you campaigned hard for me, and understandably you’re frustrated we haven’t been able to move this over the finish line,” he said, adding, “But let me be clear: I will not walk away from this fight.”

And finally: Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) took to the Senate floor yesterday to recite a Tea Party poem, explaining, “I think it represents what many people across the country are feeling about their government.” The poem warns, “And rest assured incumbents all/ There’s a rising in the land/ And real and wanted change will come/ Our future is at hand!” Bunning met the poem’s author, Norm Klopp of Cleveland, at a Tea Party rally last week.

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Daily Grill

“But we also can’t make progress if we have candidates who got serious character problems. … [Christine O’Donnell] attacked [Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) by saying he had a homosexual relationship with a young aide with not a bit of evidence to prove it.”
— Fox News’ Karl Rove, 9/14/10


“‘We were trying to counter the positives from that ad,’ a former Rove staffer told me, explaining that some within the See camp initiated a whisper campaign that Kennedy was a pedophile. ‘It was our standard practice to use the University of Alabama Law School to disseminate whisper-campaign information,’ the staffer went on.”
— The Atlantic, 11/01/04, referring to Rove’s campaign tactics in an Alabama race in 1994