The Do-Nothing Senate

The House has delivered. It has done what in American politics today is all but impossible: It has passed a major bill.

Now health care goes to the Senate. The world's greatest deliberative body. The other side of Capitol Hill. Dithering Heights.

A catastrophic change has overtaken the Senate in recent years. Initially conceived as the body that would cool the passions of the House and consider legislation with a more Olympian perspective, the Senate has become a body that shuns debate, avoids legislative give-and-take, proceeds glacially and produces next to nothing.

The problem, in part, is that Republicans have routinized the filibuster. They have given their leader, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the power to bring virtually all legislation to a halt. Earlier this month, Senate Republicans blocked consideration of an extension of unemployment insurance. When they finally let it come to a vote, the measure passed 98 to 0.

Just flexing their muscles, mind you. Establishing a new normal: If we have anything to do with it, nothing moves. Unless you can get a 60-vote majority to end debate, all major bills (and some minor ones) are dead in the water.

While Republicans have become an immovable object, the Democrats have yet to find a way to become an irresistible force. They began the year with a president who had been elected by a substantial majority on a platform of urgent change, and with sizable majorities in both houses of Congress. They had been in this position twice before. The first time around, in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt and Congress had enacted the landmark legislation of the First Hundred Days -- depositor insurance, emergency relief, industrial stabilization, public employment (the Civilian Conservation Corps). The second time around, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson and Congress had created the Great Society, passing more than 80 bills, among them Medicare, the Voting Rights Act and federal aid to education, in six months.

In 2009, though, 10 months have come and gone, and of the president's major initiatives, only the emergency stimulus package has been enacted. Health care and climate change bills have passed the House but have yet to move in the Senate. Financial reform limps along in both chambers; proponents of labor law reform await a resolution of health care before taking this up again.

Why is 2009 so different from 1933 and 1965? For one thing, the Republicans are different. In 1933 and 1965, there were moderate and even liberal Republicans -- George Norris and Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933, Jacob Javits and Thomas Kuchel in 1965, to name a few -- who voted with the Democrats. Today, there are virtually no moderate Republicans. The GOP base has shrunk to the white South as Republicans have become uniformly conservative, and their elected officials deviate from radical-right orthodoxy at their peril.

The other reason is the decline of the Senate, where no measure of any substance can pass without the 60 votes needed to ensure movement. There are 58 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them. But Democrats have ditherers within their ranks.

At least three Democratic senators -- Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Nebraska's Ben Nelson -- haven't even agreed to vote to permit health-care legislation to come to the floor. They may believe it's in their interest to come across as slowing down the process (which is already flowing with all the speed of molasses on a winter day). But it is surely not in the nation's interest to have one of its two legislative bodies dead set against legislating, which is the absurd reality the three are reinforcing.

Nor is it in the interest of their party. The Democrats and Obama supporters who flocked to the polls one year ago had reasonable expectations that the promise of change embodied in an Obama presidency and large congressional majorities would be real. Republicans understand that if they can keep the Democrats from delivering on that promise, as they did in the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency, Democratic turnout in next year's midterm elections will collapse, as it did in Virginia and New Jersey last week. Why Democratic members of the Senate want to abet this process is beyond comprehension.

It's not only their party's interest that the Senate's balky Democrats are betraying. With each passing day, the Senate becomes more of a mockery of the principle of majority rule -- democracy's most fundamental precept. If Lincoln, Landrieu and Nelson are comfortable with the idea that elections shouldn't have consequences, they should say so publicly. If not, they should let the debate begin.

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