Take the Senate, Please

Rationalization season begins early.


March 18,2014
Of late the Washington Post’s liberal blogger Greg Sargent has been working overtime to reassure Democrats that their political straits are nowhere near as dire as everyone has been saying. Thanks to President Obama, he’s no doubt been earning time and a half. But now he’s brought in a guest blogger, Paul Waldman, to offer a different kind of reassurance, in a post titled “Why Taking Over the Senate May Not Do Republicans Much Good.”

That’s right, the election is still 7½ months away, and Waldman is ready to concede (notwithstanding a disclaimer that “we should acknowledge that a Republican takeover of the upper house is anything but a sure thing”). He’s past denial and anger and into the bargaining stage.

Waldman’s central insight is that the president has the power to veto legislation. “Anything big and consequential on the Republican agenda would get vetoed,” he sagely observes:

And that would be just fine with Barack Obama. If he’s faced with both houses controlled by the opposition, there’s nothing he’d rather see than them fighting with each other and passing only unrealistic bills that he can veto without worrying about any backlash from the public.

Seems to us it would be a bit of a come-down for the guy who wanted to “fundamentally transform” America to find himself reduced to spending his last two years doing nothing but vetoing bills.

Will they switch places? Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic leader Harry Reid. Associated Press

Waldman also notes that the 2016 Senate field will be more favorable to Democrats, thanks to the Republican pickups in 2004 and 2010. “That makes it entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Republicans will have control of both houses for only two years, and after 2016 we’ll go back to the way things are now.” (Well, except that after 2016 Obama won’t be president.)

Waldman pins most of his hopes for an ineffectual Republican Senate on what he sees as an intransigent Republican House. He cites a story by TalkingPointsMemo’s Dylan Scott on the Senate GOP’s approach to ObamaCare with one by the Post’s Robert Costa on the House GOP’s course.

Senate Republicans, in Waldman’s summary, are having “a lot of discussion about some of the features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that might be trimmed back”:

Could you cut or eliminate a tax on insurance policies? What about restoring cuts to Medicare Advantage? Might you introduce a lower-level “copper” plan to be sold on the exchanges, which would be less comprehensive than the gold, silver and bronze plans?

House Republican leaders, on the other hand, “are coalescing around an alternative to the ACA that would do some of the things Republicans have been advocating for years: repeal the ACA, institute medical malpractice reform, let people buy insurance across state lines and a few other things.”

Whereas “the senators accept that the ACA is law and are thinking about how they’d like to change it,” Waldman argues, “the House members are coming up with another way to make a futile, symbolic shaking of their fists in the general direction of the White House.” Senate Republicans may “write bills that have at least some chance of ever becoming law,” but they’ll actually have no such chance, Waldman thinks (or hopes), because the House is “dominated by extremely conservative Republicans for whom any hint of compromise is considered the highest treason.”

It seems to us that Waldman has set up a false dilemma. True, it’s probably safe to assume that full repeal of ObamaCare has next to no chance of becoming law while Obama is president. But given Republican majorities in both chambers, there would be nothing preventing the House and Senate from considering both types of bills, or from sending both types of bills to the president’s desk.

The House has passed half a dozen full-repeal bills since Republicans took over in 2011, but it has also passed more modest bills, including one to delay the individual mandate tax and one to delay the employer insurance mandate. The president threatened to veto these measures–even though he had already decreed the delay in the employer mandate–and they died in the Senate anyway.

Suppose a Republican Congress sent two bills to the president’s desk–one repealing ObamaCare outright, and one repealing just the mandate tax. If he vetoed both, Republicans could portray him as the stubborn extremist, defender not only of an unpopular law but of its most unpopular provision.

It’s also possible that Waldman overstates the political unpopularity of repeal. Granted, polls that frame “keep and fix” as a vague middle ground generally find only a minority (albeit a sizable one) favoring full repeal. But it’s possible a lot of the keep-and-fixers could be won over to repeal with some skillful reframing–especially if Americans keep experiencing nasty ObamaCare surprises. (Which is not to say that full repeal, of itself, is a realistic policy. Undoing the damage of ObamaCare would require more than undoing ObamaCare. But that’s a problem of governing that the Republicans would have to face after 2016 if one of them is Obama’s successor.)

Waldman also fails to mention that a Republican Senate majority would have the power to vote down Obama nominees–a worrying enough prospect to left-wing law professor Erwin Chemerinsky that he’s joined the chorus calling on Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to get off the court while the getting is good.

Murthy’s Law 
Not that getting nominations through the Senate now is as easy as Majority Leader Harry Reid expected it to be. “The White House is facing its second Democratic rebellion in less than two weeks over a nomination that’s drawn quick opposition from rural Democratic senators,” Politico reports. That would be Vivek Murthy, Obama’s nominee to be surgeon general:

Democratic Senate aides estimated on Monday that from eight to 10 Democrats may oppose Murthy’s nomination if the vote were to be held soon, mostly because of his left-leaning views on gun policy, which have attracted opposition from the National Rifle Association. An aide closely following the nomination described a vote for Murthy as carrying “very little political or policy gain but plenty of downside.”

A cheerful editorial in the New York Times, denounces what the headline calls “The Gun Lobby’s Latest Bizarre Crusade”:

What aroused the N.R.A.’s ire was a letter Doctors for America sent to Congress in January 2013, shortly after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which he co-signed as the organization’s president, and a similar letter sent to Vice President Joseph Biden Jr., as chief of the task force appointed by Mr. Obama to find solutions to gun violence.

The letter supported “a federal ban on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition, a buyback program to reduce the number of guns in circulation, limits on the purchase of ammunition, mandatory safety training for gun owners, and mandatory waiting periods before completing a purchase.”

All of these are “sane, mainstream proposals” in New York Timesland. Reasonable people can disagree about that, but it takes a real failure of imagination to dismiss the NRA’s objections as “bizarre.” Imagine if a Republican president nominated for surgeon general a past president of an antiabortion group that advocated sane, mainstream policies short of a total ban on abortion (mandatory waiting periods, say, or bans on abortion after 20 weeks). The abortion lobby would surely oppose the nomination, as would most Senate Democrats and perhaps some Republicans. That’s just the way it goes with polarizing social issues.

“Instead of knuckling under to the gun lobby’s unfair attacks against Dr. Murthy,” the New York Times intones in conclusion, “Democratic leaders should defend him vigorously and get him confirmed.” But if you’re a Democrat from Arkansas or Montana or North Carolina or North Dakota, your constituents are probably more in tune with the NRA than the NYT.