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You Call That a Filibuster?

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: You Call That a Filibuster?

Michelle, let me start with the Reid "attempt" to do a real filibuster, for all of 24 hours. Remember that Bill Frist did the same thing in 2005 when he proposed the “nuclear option” to blow up Senate rules and traditions, and was stung when he was reminded that he and his colleagues had never once tried to handle a filibuster in the traditional way. So he did the 24-hour symbolic thing. That is like saying "I tried a hunger strike by fasting on Yom Kippur (and of course gorged myself after sunset).” A real filibuster would be a whole different experience. Would it be like Newt's shutdown of the whole government? Not at all. It would not shut down vital programs like Social Security or the national parks. If handled adroitly (admittedly, a tough bar for the Senate Democrats to hurdle), it would not look like a temperamental outburst. Instead it would change the grounds of debate--a reasonable request to let the majority have its way on things that are clearly reasonable and important and not matters of great principle for a minority to hold onto. Otherwise, the next year is going to look very much like the first year of the 110th Congress. And while it is true that the public's disdain for Congress is not yet hitting Democrats as much as it is Republicans, the operative word is "yet." They actually achieved some reasonable, if not sweeping, victories in 2007, but they were lost in the noise of the bickering and the imagery of gridlock. Democrats need to try something different in 2008.

To be sure, a lot of the problem stemmed from the way they handled the war. Maybe that will be different next year. The fact is, there was never a prospect that they could substantially alter the course of a war when there are so many American troops in the field and when the president's party sticks with them. In response to Time's Putin pick, The Weekly Standard just named General Petraeus "America's Man of the Year." He's certainly the GOP's Man of the Year. He single-handedly saved the party from a fracture and meltdown over the war that would have spread to other issues. But now that the war is no longer the only major issue voters are focusing on, Democrats in Congress need to develop a different strategy on it and everything else. How about this: confrontation over obstructionist tactics in the Senate, and cooperation between Democratic leaders and the moderate Republicans in the House (there are fifteen or so, including many who are retiring and would like to go out on a relatively high note).

(Read Michelle Cottle'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