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Two Houses, Two Strategies

The TNR Congressional Roundup

Over the next few days, a group of Congressional experts will try to answer the big questions that came out of the Capitol last year: Were the Democrats as hapless as the press made them out to be? How could've they been more effective in meeting those filibustering Republicans head-on? What happened with the timetable for withdrawal? And, hey, where's Rahm when you need him? You can read their responses here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven.

From: Norman Ornstein

To: Michelle Cottle and Eve Fairbanks

Subject: Two Houses, Two Strategies

Michelle, I can't disagree with you about the odds that Democrats could or would handle this situation--or any situation--adroitly. But I don't think trying to fade into the background, hoping that voters will view them as adopting a policy of benign neglect, will work very well. I do believe firmly that the House Democrats need to adopt policies very different from those of Senate Democrats. House Democrats need to try to find more ways to bring Republicans into the mix, even though that will not work with the Republican leaders, who have decided that trying to embarrass Democrats is more important than seeking any common ground. But many rank-and-file Republicans would love to be empowered in some fashion. That means Democratic committee chairs should bring some GOPers in when they first start to craft bills, not after they’ve already written them. It also means more open amendment and debate processes.

Don’t get me wrong: Increased Republican participation won't always work. For example, it appears to have faltered on the ethics package that Mike Capuano of Massachusetts pulled together, where virtually every Republican idea and objection was taken into account and reflected in the package, but which they still refused to endorse. But it is necessary for now and for next year.

Beyond that, though, Senate Democrats need to try something else. Otherwise, the approach of raising the bar to sixty on everything, and drawing every bill-- even the consensus ones--out for days and weeks, will become so commonplace that it will permanently transform the body. Another year of this and the press will pay even less attention, if that is possible, to a new and radical use of delay tactics. There is a risk that playing hardball could backfire on the Democrats, of course--that it will make them look hard-headed and divisive. But I think the more realistic thing to expect is that the Democrats, reflecting the softness that is endemic in the Senate, will not be able to sustain any filibuster that requires members to discomfit themselves for a couple of weeks, and will blink.

(Read Eve Fairbanks's response here.) 

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic. Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. Norman Ornstein is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, in 2006, of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann.

By Michelle Cottle, Eve Fairbanks, and Norman Ornstein