How Senate Democrats Will Determine Our Future

I want to preface this post by saying I share the optimism presented in many posts on itsgettinghot by the Obama administration’s behavior and decisions in the First 100 Days. There are many tools available to the President to make change immediately, from budget proposals to executive rulemaking, and he and his administrative appointees are rapidly restoring the role of science and technical expertise to the EPA, among other achievements.

However, for the United States to begin bringing our emissions down to get in line with the recommendations of James Hansen and 350, or demonstrate real leadership going into the Copenhagen climate negotiations, our attention needs to be focused on certain members of Congress, and especially the Senate. I bring this up in reference to an article that in its essentials has little to do with climate change, but whose implications are enormous. The article is a reflection on Senate Democrats by Jonathan Chait in the April 15 issue of The New Republic.

Chait’s main point is that Democrats are failing to fall in line in support of Obama’s policy agenda, even more so than Republicans failed to get in line with Bush’s, even at his lowest popularity (which got down to the thirties). During the President’s First 100 Days, House and Senate Dems have been responsible for a reduction of 1 million projected new jobs created by the stimulus, elimination of a budget proposal that would have limited subsidies to farmers grossing over 500,000 per year, limiting tax deductions for the rich, or saving the taxpayers 4 billion annually by ending guaranteed loans in favor of direct loans to pay for college. He points out that difference of opinion among members of the same party, while certainly desirable for policy development and debate, can become a hindrance when major policy goals are sacrificed on the altar of party incoherence and “Senate dysfunction.”   

Chait points to Senate customs and procedure as a major sticking point: “The Senate poses a particular obstacle to Democrats. Its structure gives greater voice to residents of low-population states, who tilt more Republican than the country as a whole. If you assume that every senator represents half the population of that state, then the Republican caucus represents less than 38 percent of the public. In electoral terms, we think of that as a tiny, even fringe minority. It’s less than the share of the electorate that voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. But it supports enough senators to block the majority’s will. There is one tool available to break through the new supermajority requirement. That tool is called “reconciliation.” Reconciliation is an expedited process to vote on a budget, limiting debate to 20 hours and, more importantly, circumventing the filibuster. This means that one budget bill every year can be passed with just 51 votes. As the filibuster has grown routine, reconciliation has become a vital legislative tool. Many Democrats, alas, are far more squeamish than their GOP colleagues about deploying this tool.”

Why is this important?

He goes on to point out that while Republicans stepped up to deploy reconciliation as a tactic with little hesitation, “Eight Democratic senators signed a letter opposing the use of reconciliation to pass a cap-and-trade bill limiting carbon-dioxide emissions. Reconciliation, they wrote, “would circumvent normal Senate practice and would be inconsistent with the administration’s stated goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness.” Several Democrats also oppose using reconciliation to pass health care reform. Democrat Mary Landrieu offered up a somewhat less melodramatic argument when she said that reconciliation “was intended for deficit reduction, and it should not be used for other things.”

In other words, if Senate Democrats were more concerned with passing aggressive legislation than they were about conserving a gentlemanly parliamentary procedure, we might have a cap-and-trade bill on the books. That is not to say that this author thinks that abuse of reconciliation is desirable, but rather that we need to make the case that it’s not worth inaction on emissions reduction, health care, and economic recovery. We need to find the eight Senate Democrats mentioned above and apply some pressure. The Democratic Party line needs to be to fight climate change, and Senate Dems need to fall in line.

Jesse Jenkins broke down critical Senate members and their stance on climate in his Watthead post right after the Powershift 09 conference. I remember speaking myself with students as they came out of lobby meetings with their representatives: Many representatives sent a staff person instead, were unable to make a commitment on film, and while supportive generally, or would not take a firm stand to get our emissions where we need to be, and this bunch included Senators and Representatives from both sides of the aisle. But I still believe that if swift action is to be taken on climate change, the most likely way it will happen is through Democratic ability to outline a series of priorities and unify behind them.

I am so, so encouraged by the policy choices being made by President Obama so far. However, in order to get the legislation passed that we need to begin to really bring down our emissions quickly, he will need Congress to fall in line. Now, the article above talks about party lines, and while this should not be a partisan issue, and I am thrilled whenever a Republican such as Inglis comes out with a video explaining the issue to his colleagues (thank you Focus the Nation!), I think that our fate will ultimately rest with Democratic ability to accept presidential leadership and stop quibbling.

So, not to sound like a broken record, but…call your Senator?

    1 Response to “How Senate Democrats Will Determine Our Future”


    1. 1 madbugz Apr 30th, 2009 at 7:45 pm

      PS Those legislators who voted against the cap and trade bill were:

      Democrats – 8
      Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)
      Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)
      Robert Casey (D-Pa.)
      Mary Landrieu (D-La.)
      Carl Levin (D-Mich.)
      Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.)
      Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)
      Mark Pryor (D-Ark.)

      Republicans – 25
      Mike Johanns (R-Neb.)
      Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)
      John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)
      Kit Bond (R-Mo.)
      Sam Brownback (R-Kan.)
      Jim Bunning (R-Ky.)
      Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)
      Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)
      Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)
      Susan Collins (R-Maine)
      Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
      Michael Crapo (R-Idaho)
      John Ensign (R-Nev.)
      Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.)
      Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)
      Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas)
      Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.)
      Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.)
      John McCain (R-Ariz.)
      Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
      Jim Risch (R-Idaho)
      Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)
      David Vitter (R-La.)
      George Voinovich (R-Ohio)
      Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

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    About Madeline


    Madeline Co-Coordinates Project Survival Media, a global network of youth journalists committed to sharing stories of survival and ingenuity in the face of climate change. She is also the Working Films Engegement Coordinator for the new documentary film "Dirty Business" by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Madeline graduated from Macalester College with a BA in Political Science and a Minor in Environmental Studies. During that time, she also studied abroad in the Brazilian Amazon, with SIT Brazil: Amazon Resource Management and Human Ecology. She loves to climb, do as much yoga as she can, hike, and generally play outside, and she is fascinated by any field that studies how humans organize ourselves and shape/are shaped by the physical world.

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