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Power players

"Power players" Continued...

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

"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.

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