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Subverting Majority Rule

Robert Borosage

The Republican obstruction campaign continues. Yesterday, the Republican minority in the Senate filibustered and blocked two measures that had majority support in the House, and bipartisan majority support in the Senate. Republicans continue to filibuster at a pace three times anything ever seen before, in a systematic effort to block popular reforms.

Fifty-six Senators, including six Republicans, supported the resolution offered by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to guarantee the soldiers fighting in Iraq adequate home rotations. This sensible bill - vital to the mental health and readiness of the soldiers on the front line - was blocked because the remaining Republican senators lined up with their leadership to filibuster it.

Similarly, 56 Senators, including six Republicans, supported the legislation introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., to restore the fundamental right of court review for those detained under suspicion of terrorism. Once more the will of the bipartisan majority was subverted by the filibuster strategy of a partisan minority.

Republicans are filibustering so many bills that the press has begun to cover this extreme tactic as business as usual. The front-page Washington Post story covering the Webb proposal is headlined "Senate bill short of sixty votes needed." The article says the proposal "failed on a 56 to 44 vote, with 60 votes needed for passage." The article never tells the reader that the reason majority rule was frustrated was because of a Republican filibuster that requires 60 votes to overcome.

The New York Times coverage - "GOP minority prevails" is the subtitle - was somewhat better. In its fourth paragraph, the article reports that the proposal "fell four votes short of the 60 needed to prevent a filibuster." In fact, the 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster, not prevent it. Both papers reported the filibuster correctly on the habeas corpus legislation.

It is vital that the press get this right - and that the media expose the extraordinary scope of the Republican strategy of obstruction. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has announced that Republicans will filibuster every "controversial measure." They are making majority rule the exception rather than the routine in the Senate. Never has any party been so brazen or systematic in using the filibuster to block the majority.

A partisan minority of Senators has used the filibuster to block efforts to bring the troops home from Iraq, to frustrate passage of clean energy legislation, to block giving Medicare the power to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs, and much more.

Their strategy is clear - and very likely to work. The public expects the party in charge to get things done. Excuses are largely dismissed as political bickering. The Republican minority blocks popular reforms and then charges Democrats with running a "do-nothing Congress." For scandal-stained Republican legislators yoked to an unpopular president pursing an unpopular debacle in Iraq, this may be their best hope for survival.

It works, of course, only if the public doesn't learn of it. So how these stories are covered is critical. Citizens need to be told each time why the bipartisan majorities are frustrated, why the super-majority of 60 votes is needed, and who is responsible. Reporters should be reporting on the Republican strategy, and exposing the cynical calculation behind it.

These measures did not fail for lack of bipartisan, majority support. They have majority support in the House, the Senate and among the American people. They failed because they were blocked by a partisan minority pursing a partisan political strategy. The press should insure that Americans are told that story.

© 2007

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