Sweat-streaked hair falling over his eyes, Sen. Jefferson Smith croaked to skeptical Senate colleagues that he would not stand for "graft" in the pending legislation: "I can hold this floor a little short of doomsday. I've got a piece to speak-and blow hot or cold, I'm going to speak it," he said hoarsely in the middle of a 24-hour filibuster speech.
Of course this winded oratory was not over the Obama stimulus package. In fact, Smith isn't even a senator, but actor Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Modern-day Republican senators wish they had Smith's filibustering power to stop Democratic legislation. Thanks to a measure included in the 2010 budget agreement already approved by Congress (without a single Republican vote), senators can pass health-care reform with a simple majority of 51 votes-and not the usual "super majority" of 60 needed to break a Senate filibuster.
With the roster of Senate Democrats now standing at 59 after the recent defection of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, this dynamic change in Senate procedure puts massive health-care reform on a fast track to passage.
It also sends a message, conservatives say, that Republicans will not be needed as the White House and Congress seek an overhaul of the medical insurance industry that could lead to government-managed health care. This mammoth reform could now come without a single Republican vote despite past verbal overtures for bipartisanship from Obama and other Democratic leaders. Lawmakers also included the bold "reconciliation" maneuver to allow education reform to circumvent the traditional Senate rules.
No less a Democratic stalwart than Sen. Robert Byrd, the Democrat from West Virginia now in his 50th year in the Senate, broke party ranks to vote against the budget, warning that reconciliation would lead to a "rigged pseudo-debate on health care."
"Using reconciliation to ram through complicated, far-reaching legislation is an abuse of the budget process. This is a very messy way to achieve a goal like health-care reform."
So with the health-care debate set for a summer showdown of federal bureaucracy versus free market, the question arises: Will Republicans walk into the congressional chambers with not only zero bullets but no guns in their holsters? With House Democrats enjoying a fat 78-seat majority and Senate Democrats possessing at least eight more votes then needed, is Democratic-stamped health-care reform (and education overhaul) a fait accompli?
One answer to who can slow the Obama train, according to Dennis Whitfield with the American Conservative Union, is moderate Democrats. Coming largely from Southern and Midwestern red states that vote Republican for president and boast a lot of independent voters, these moderate Democrats are self-described fiscal conservatives. Their states continue to be hit hard by the economy and residents there get a little worried about government spending and higher taxes.
Now the current congressional calculus is putting this centrist voting bloc in prime position to put their own stamp on Obama's legislative agenda. Concerned about their own reelections, these Democrats have soul-searching decisions to make regarding how deep they are willing to wade into the liberal end of their party.
"They should be very cautious about how far they go along with Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid," said Whitfield. "These are the people on the Democratic side who may say wait a minute."
A few have already said wait a minute. Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., both voted against Obama's budget. "I've been a fiscal conservative throughout my career," Bayh, up for reelection in 2010, recently said on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace. "It's nothing personal to the president."
Bayh, whose state approval rating shot to 74 percent in a poll released after he voted against Obama's budget, added: "We don't want the government intruding any more than it has to in the private sector. When it comes to health care, we don't want socialized medicine." For his part, Nelson has opposed Obama's cap-and-trade energy plan.
Sensing their rising star status, Bayh, Nelson, and 13 other Senate Democrats, three of whom are up for reelection, formed a moderate working group in March to ensure the more liberal wing of the party does not ignore their voices. Using adjectives like "pragmatic," "practical," and "fiscally responsible," the new group pledged not to be automatic Democratic votes.
The group, which contains numerous freshman senators from traditionally Republican-leaning states looking to shore up their moderate mantle, joins the long-established House "Blue Dog" faction of about 50 conservative Democrats.
But Mike Franc with the Heritage Foundation says moderate Democrats deserve bad marks so far. Their bite has not been as strong as their bark. In some of Congress' biggest votes this year-on the stimulus, the budget, TARP financial bailout funds, a measure that rolled back welfare reform, the expansions of both government-funded health care for children and the government-run AmeriCorps volunteer program-moderate Democrats have voted with the most liberal wing of their party nearly two-thirds of the time, according to Franc.
"When they have had a chance to say 'No, we didn't sign up for this agenda,' they haven't done it," said Franc. "With their track record thus far a lot of people would like to play poker with them because they are going to fold a lot.
" If this voting pattern holds, moderate Democrats may have some explaining to do to their constituents, since many ran on platforms that did not venture as far to the left as the current Democratic agenda. Sensing this, Democratic House leaders, comfortable with their sizable voting margin, have been allowing House moderates to vote against them on certain bills in hopes of shoring up their reelection bids. But the Senate does not have similar cover.
"We no longer have the votes to hold anything, so I don't think anybody's going to properly call us the 'party of no,'" Republican Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl told Roll Call last week. "If something gets defeated, it will have to be because some Democrats joined in."
That statement has become even more true with the adoption of the reconciliation rule allowing a simple majority to pass health-care and education reform.
The Senate as a body exists to protect the rights of the minority, to make sure minority voices are heard, says Betty Koed, a historian with the Senate Historical Office. The ability of even one senator to block legislation he or she deems bad for the country through a filibuster has been a key weapon for the minority. Until now. "Majorities hate filibusters and minorities love filibusters," said Koed.
Koed said the Senate doesn't keep records on how many bills or nominations have been derailed by a filibuster. She said quantifying its effectiveness is hard because the threat of a filibuster is often as powerful as an actual filibuster. On May 13, Republicans successfully used their first filibuster of an Obama administration nominee to block the confirmation of David J. Hayes as deputy secretary of the interior. (Three Democrats missed the vote, and Senate leaders said they would bring the nomination back to the floor when those Democrats are present. That would likely give Hayes 61 votes.)
But even when a filibuster fails, it still allows the minority party a chance to publicize their viewpoint.
With large voting deficits to overcome in Congress for the next two years, Republicans have latched onto the strategy of taking their message to another set of voters: their constituents. To do that, they plan on letting constituents know that the Democrats are casting aside bipartisanship. In interviews on Capitol Hill, Republican strategists repeatedly invoke the phrase that Democrats will "own 100 percent" any major health-care or education overhauls they pass without bipartisan support. The thinking among Republicans is that most Americans will flinch at the cost and bureaucracy of the Democrats' plans.
"There may be a tolerance for government to get bigger and do more things in a crisis," said Franc. "But if it looks like these are not temporary Band-Aids but permanent government programs, then expect a voter backlash."
Conservatives see hope in the fact that polls show disparities between public support of Obama, whose celebrity status was cemented during the campaign, and support for Democratic policies.
A recent Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll gave Obama a 60 percent approval rating. But 62 percent of those same respondents opposed further government intervention in banks or insurance companies. Furthermore, the poll showed that Americans still sense the need for the government's system of checks and balances: 48 percent saw more merit in electing a Republican Congress to keep Obama accountable, while 41 percent preferred a Democratic Congress to work with Obama. "The public doesn't like that image of a legislative steamroller," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "They believe it is dangerous and sends a wrong message.
"There is historical precedent that large majorities are short-lived. President Jimmy Carter enjoyed Democratic majorities in Congress, including a filibuster-proof 61 seats in the Senate. But in the 1978 mid-term elections, with the country going though an economic crisis, Republicans gained 15 seats in the House while defeating five Democratic incumbents in the Senate. Two years later Carter lost the presidency as Republicans gained 35 seats in the House and became the majority party in the Senate. In the 1994 mid-term elections, Republicans, in the aftermath of President Bill Clinton's failed health-care proposal, picked up eight Senate seats and 54 in the House-taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
This is the danger for Democrats if they overreach with too ambitious an agenda. And with the economy, health care, education, and energy all on the table for this year, few would argue that the current agenda is anything but ambitious.
"It is just the nature of power," said Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science at Indiana University. "When people have a lot of it they try to push through more than the American public can swallow in one bite. They start envisioning a mandate, and in American politics we simply don't have a mandate."
Back in Congress, Senate Republicans recently reveled in the defeat of a mortgage plan that would have spurred homeowners to declare bankruptcy while raising interest rates on other borrowers. Twelve Democrats joined Republicans in killing the measure, including five from the moderate Democrats' working group.
But bigger battles remain in health care and education, and the GOP will be handcuffed in those fights. Without the filibuster, they will not be able to say as the fictional Sen. Smith did that "wild horses aren't going to drag me off this floor till those people've heard everything I've got to say."
But this aggressive bypassing of Senate rules has not escaped one Democrat. Byrd, the longest-serving member in Senate history, sees a future where Democrats again will be in the minority, begging to be protected from "the bear trap" of reconciliation: "The worm will turn."