This column was written by John Nichols.
Harry Reid is finally coming to the realization reached months ago by the American people: That Democrats in Congress have been played for suckers by the Bush White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
The Senate majority leader's recognition of the realities of Washington in the Bush era — as evidenced by his decision Monday to set up a scenario that could clarify the role played by Republican senators in maintaining the president's exceptionally unpopular approach to the Iraq War — holds out the prospect that the politics of the debate over ending the occupation could change radically in the weeks to come.
Make no mistake, such a shift is necessary.
Despite the clear mandate they received last November — a mandate that, in a time of war and against a fierce campaign by the sitting president, restored the opposition party to control of both the U.S. House and Senate for the first time since the "Republican revolution" of 1994 — Congressional Democrats have for the past six months behaved as powerless bystanders in George Bush's Washington.
Instead of boldly challenging the most dysfunctional president in American history, using all the tools of the system of a checks and balances that was established to favor legislative oversight of the executive branch, Democrats have played the game by Bush's rules. And they have lost at every turn.
With a quarter of the term of the current Congress now done, it is clear that the cooperative approach adopted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nevada, hasn't worked. It is not just that approval ratings for Congress are now below those of a failed president that Democrats were elected to challenge and constrain. It is that the disastrous war in Iraq, the central crisis of this American moment, continues to claim the lives of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians at an alarming rate.
The circumstance requires that Congressional Democrats change course. And their new priority should be to clarify rather than muddy the debate over Iraq.
That is what Reid is doing, at least tentatively, with his decision to, as he puts it, "highlight Republican obstruction" of Democratic efforts to bring the troops home.
Reid plans to do that Tuesday by refusing to allow Republicans to quietly make procedural moves to block voting on an amendment sponsored by Michigan Senator Carl Levin and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed that would establish a withdrawal timeline. Instead, he plans to force the president's Senate allies to filibuster — at least for one night — in favor of continuing a war that even Republicans do not want to be associated with anymore.
"I would like to inform the Republican leadership and all my colleagues that we have no intention of backing down," Reid declared Monday afternoon. "If Republicans do not allow a vote on Levin/Reed today or tomorrow, we will work straight through the night on Tuesday. The American people deserve an open and honest debate on this war, and they deserve an up or down vote on this amendment to end it."
Unless Republicans agree to a simple-majority vote on Levin-Reed, Reid has indicated that he will keep the Senate in continuous session through Tuesday night and into Wednesday.
The point is to make it absolutely clear that Republican senators — even those who say they want to start bringing the troops home — are doing everything in their power to prevent a Senate vote that might embarrass of challenge Bush.
It is not likely that one night of filibustering can complete the process of exposing the Republican shenanigans for what they are.
But Reid's move is a step in the right direction.
Nothing highlighted the ineffectual nature of the Democratic opposition to Bush's policies more than Reid's willingness to politely allow Republicans to prevent votes on fundamental issues such as the war.
Again and again, Republicans threatened to filibuster — a move that involves endless speechifying and limitless debate — in order to prevent the passage of measures designed to being bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Again and again, the majority leader responded to the threats by seeking a cloture vote that, if successful, would trump the filibuster threat and allow a vote of the full Senate in favor of the anti-war position that the vast majority of Democrats and a reasonable number of Republicans say they favor. Cloture refers to the only procedure by which the Senate can place a time limit on debate, thus overcoming a threatened filibuster, and get to clarity. Cloture can only be achieved if three-fifths of the members of the Senate, normally 60 of them, vote for it.
Unfortunately for Reid, the Democratic caucus has just 51 members — a few of whom, like Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, are in the pocket of the Bush White House — and the majority leader has only a handful of Republican allies who are willing to break with the administration on cloture votes regarding Iraq.
Thus, when Reid has sought cloture, he has more often than not been thwarted by Republican leaders, who successfully hold enough of their members to prevent the limit on debate. Only when the White House has ordered Senate Republicans to back off and allow a vote, as happened on the supplemental funding measure that Bush would eventually veto, does Reid get the vote he wants.
Reid and his fellow Democrats have tried to portray the votes on cloture as true tests of the will of senators.
But the American people have not seen these procedural clashes as consequential. As a result, Republicans who wanted to play both sides of the Iraq debate — making vaguely anti-war statements that get big play in the media while quietly providing the behind-the-scenes votes the White House needs to maintain its policies — were able to do so.
There was no clarity. And more and more Americans came to see Reid and the Democrats as, at best, ineffective; and, at worst, in unspoken collaboration with Bush.
Reid appears finally to have recognized that problem — with a little prodding from Senate colleagues and grassroots activists.
North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, a principled Democrat from a rather red state who voted against authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq and who "gets" the Senate as well as just about any member, raised the prospect of a new approach when he appeared last week on Air America's "Young Turks" program. Conrad explained that a Republican senator had recently told him the GOP leadership had adopted a strategy designed to "prevent any accomplishment" by the Democratic Congress. A key component of the strategy is to repeatedly threaten filibusters that force cloture votes — on the theory that, try as Democrats might to portray those votes as meaningful, all that most Americans would know is that under Democratic leadership nothing was getting done.
Conrad suggested that it might be wise to put the procedural debates aside and let the American people see what is really happening.
"We have a narrow but clear majority in the United States Senate. We have a narrow but clear majority in the House of Representatives. And so we do have more of an ability to have our points of view heard than we did when we were in the minority. But it's also the reality [that] he President has the biggest megaphone, and, you know, until Democrats have the White House, they're always going to be at a disadvantage in terms of getting a message out," explained Conrad. "With that said, with that said, I think that we could do a better job making our points, and one part of that is to let the American people see just how obstructionist this Republican minority is being."
Asked if Democrats should abandon the polite approach of seeking cloture votes, losing them and then going on to other business, and instead begin forcing the Republicans to filibuster — thus displaying their true positions on ending the war — Conrad said, "Yeah, I think there's a growing consensus that we ought to do that."
Conrad's statement inspired activists, including the folks at MoveOn.org, to begin a push to get Reid and the Democratic leadership of the Senate to call the bluff of the Republicans.
Reid has not quite done that. He is still playing the cloture game to some extent, and a single night of forcing Republicans to show their true colors may not be enough to scare wavering GOP senators into breaking with their president and their party's Senate leadership.
But it is a start, potentially, of a new chapter in the war debate.
Reid is beginning to realize that Democrats have gotten nowhere by playing according to rules that favor the White House and its congressional allies.
He is moving toward a point of saying to Republicans: "It you want to filibuster in favor of continuing the failed occupation of Iraq, go for it. Show the American people exactly how determined you are to maintain George Bush's war."
By abandoning at least some of the inside-the-beltway politeness that gave Republicans an opening they have ably exploited, Reid is forcing members of the president's party who like to hint that they are anti-war but never vote that way to publicly and officially take a side. The more Republicans engage in pro-war filibusters, the more they establish once and for all that — no matter what they say about their supposed discomfort with the president's approach — they see it as their job to prevent Congress from checking and balancing the Bush White House.
Like the southern senators who filibustered against civil rights legislation in the 1950s, Republicans who choose to rant on and on about how Congress cannot block the president's war making will expose themselves and their party to the harsh light of day — and potentially to the harsh response of the voters in 2008. And those Republicans who like to sound like critics of the war but who allow their party's leadership to maintain the filibuster will be exposed as the hypocrites they are.
If particular Republican senators do not like this scenario, they can pull together enough votes to assure Reid will have the 60 supporters he needs to avert the filibuster threat and get a real debate and a real vote on whether to end the occupation. Then, instead of allowing Republicans to abuse the cloture process to obstruct the will of the people, Reid can use cloture to quickly and easily remove the obstruction.
The key is for Reid to stop giving Republicans an easy out. When GOP leaders threaten to filibuster in favor of endless war, the majority leader must continually call their bluff. That will give the president's partisan allies in the Senate political ownership of his war — and it will give the American people a clear picture of who wants to bring the troops home and who wants to leave them mired in George Bush's quagmire.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation